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Posts Tagged ‘crisis management’

on pandemics


Over the thirty or so years that I had some senior management responsibility I have sat through many hours of crisis management, business continuity and disaster recovery sessions looking at strategy and tactics for such events. I have also been involved in many dry runs to test the plans that same from these sessions and a good few incidents where such planning and practice helped, even if the planning was actually flawed.

One topic that came late to these discussions was that of a pandemic. I think that it was towards the end of the nineties that it was first brought up, but we were, at that time, dealing with all sorts of nonsense about what the millennium would bring and that, being imminent, was very much the priority even if we were wasting our time.

The risk of a pandemic took hold as were saw things like bird ‘flu and ebola rampage around the globe, but there was little impact here in the UK and I don’t think that any of us took such threats too seriously. They always seemed a bit science fiction and I don’t think the way that these potential events were presented helped. After all wee were hard bitten operational people who dealt with real life issues; strikes, power cuts, road accidents, weather and such. Yes, there were times when some form of sickness might sweep through the workforce, but such events were rare and when they did happen they were very localised.

It was about ten years ago when I had the last discussion on risk management plans and was, at that time, acting in a consultancy role rather than being the person whom would be left holding the can. By then we had seen a few more viral infections spread around the world and almost all office environments had become open plan on every floor of a building which increased the opportunity to spread infections around a building. The one thing that I remember from that time is the potential scale of a pandemic was beyond everyone’s imagination; it was just too hard to grasp a scenario such as the one that the world has gone through over the last eighteen months.

Whilst appropriate plans were drawn up for mass home working , disruptions to supplies and trade there was little enthusiasm for any of it. How wrong we were and yet we have, largely, come though it fairly well. Business has changed and there have been casualties. We have not seen the last of the latter, but there has been a demonstration of just how adaptable businesses are in the face of a challenge.

I do not advocate ignoring risk nor failing to plan and train for dealing with potential risks, but throughout my career I saw various crises arise that did not fit the planning. The old military adage of no strategy surviving past first contact with the enemy is very true. Business is often derided as is the capitalist system, but it works and any business that is flexible and adaptable will rise to meet significant change in its environment. What planning for a crisis does is it get managers thinking about how they will react and considering where to find resources and how to deploy them. When a challenge arises, whilst it may not resemble anything that has been planned for, the thinking processes are in place and they work.

Thinking time is never wasted. Perhaps the current pandemic might have given us time to ponder on that.

on roadmaps


My loathing of management speak is well documented here and being asked, or more likely told, in any state of crisis to produce a “Roadmap” to recovery always made me seethe. Roadmap is a wonderful example of management speak; it is a great sound bite, short, snappy and seems to encapsulate a need in just the one word. Simple isn’t it?

The problem is that it is, in that sort of context, bollocks of the first order. A roadmap implies that someone has laid out all of the routes from where you are to where you need to be and all you have to do is choose one, but whilst you might know where you want to get to in a crisis you often don’t know exactly where you are starting from and that situation can change minute by minute let alone hour by hour and day by day. There are times when you can’t get your head out of the trench long for enough to see which direction the bullets are coming from.

You will have a crisis plan and another for disaster recovery and these should have been rehearsed and polished, but the real thing never perfectly matches the events that unfold and so you are working to stay on top of events as they unfold. It is a bit like finding your way out of a maze and there will be times when you have to back track, but if you think about it even a successful way out of a maze is full of u-turns. Information that points you one way today may well change to point you another way tomorrow and trying to get two experts to agree on something is a futile exercise. You need patience and tenacity along with the ability to react quickly to changes in circumstance.

At some point you will have come out the other side and there will always be a need for a drains up on what happened, but this should only be about learning not blaming. In all probability you will never face exactly the same situation again, but you can learn about what you did well and why and what you didn’t do well and why. Being able to improve your processes for gathering and managing information to aid the decision making process is crucial as is making sure that your communication channels work as well as they can.

Leaders need their people to believe in them and whilst the management speakers can sound good I have not yet met one who could actually deliver anything like as well as their words might imply. Most of them I would not have trusted to lead me out of a 50 metre cup-de-sac in broad daylight. Fine words might gain you some followers, but they will soon desert you for another you is actually delivering results. Ideas are great but actions are better. But someone on the sidelines spotting platitudes is a waste of space and the best thing that you can do is to not let them distract you.c

on crisis management


I have, over the years, had to manage a few some lasting a matter of hours, many for a couple of days and one or two that went into a second week. They come along with reasonable regularity and most you have planned for, for example there is a good chance that you will get a power failure at some point and you should have plans in place that you test. Occasionally you get some warning; floods for example, but most of the time a crisis will come out of the blue and you need to react.

Leaving aside the details of how you manage a crisis there is a common thread and that is that you need information in order to make decisions about what to do. The problem that always occurs is that the information you are getting is not static. Let’s take an equipment failure as a starting point. Something stops working so you do the obvious checks and then call for an engineer. They will be with you in two hours you are told and so you work on the basis that it will probably be three hours before they get to you (experience) and then at least another hour before they have diagnosed the fault.

So you are planning on at least four hours before you know what is wrong and then you should have some idea of how long it will take to fix. You make some decisions about what you can do to continue business and communicate an action plan. Half a day is potentially down the toilet and you will be trying to work out the implications of that. You should have some plans in place for this sort of problem and you will have kicked those off, but, as the military will tell you, no plan survives first contact with the enemy. In this case the enemy is life and it will conspire to screw you in all probability.

The fitter arrives five hours after the call and starts work. There is no point in asking how long at this point because they cannot tell you any more than that they need a certain amount of time to run their tests. Leave them to get on with the job and concentrate on the things that you can do something about, but, by now, you have lost today.

As you try to reschedule again and plan communicating the changes news reaches you that one group of people have, instead of doing something that you asked, decided that they had a better idea and have implemented it. It might actually be a better idea, but doing it in isolation has screwed up the overall plan (by now you are probably on Plan C).

Trying not to panic you accept that today is really now finished and look to work out what you will do tomorrow. There are still variables though and the engineer tells you that the part that has failed has been identified, has been ordered and is en-route by courier from Germany and that he will be back in the morning to accept it on delivery and fit it. You know not to ask when things will be running again, but you ask anyway. The response is a shrug. Plan D is worked out that evening along with plans E and F as contingency and you have all the communication ready to roll come the morning.

I won’t go through the story* any further because the moral has been set out: Things change all of the time around you and trying to juggle them all whilst new things keep getting thrown in as ones in the pattern are snatched away is all part of managing. Rarely does anyone tell you that you are doing well and, whilst you always have crisis plans, all they do is give you a rough framework and a few tools. Most of what happens you will be making ups as you go along based on information, predictions and experience of which the first two will be changing, often to the extent of complete U-turns.

All you can do is to keep your head and plough on. You know that you will, at times, look stupid or incompetent, but don’t let it phase you. The Monday Morning Quarterbacks will have a field day with the benefit of knowing the results and will glory in the bits that you didn’t do so well, but they were not there in the hot seat.

One of the problems is that there will always be some damage and anyone who try’s to say that there should n to have been is wrong (I have a lot of other descriptions for them, but I’ll keep this clean). What you want to do is to minimise that damage and as long as you do that you have succeeded.

Yes there needs to be a drains up review afterwards, but that has to be solely about learning; apportionment of blame can play no part because you want the truth not the smokescreen of a fighting defence.

  • The story is a real one. The new part arrived and failed that day. It took four more days to find the root of the problem and another two to implement an effective cure. It cost us dearly in terms both financial and to our reputation and all because a new piece of kit being operated by the company next door was causing spikes in the electricity supply. We did survive though and over the next twelve months we recovered, but one customer had left all of our daily briefings and delighted in trotting them out every time we got around to negotiating another contract with them. That’s life; suck it up and keep smiling.

on mob rule


We are living in a strange time and one where rampant mobs seem to be more tolerated than dealt with. Peaceful protest is one thing and I will always support the right of people to gather and march in support of a cause regardless of whether I agree with their point of view. But violent protest and damage to property are criminal acts.

For those involved in workplace management (or facilities management as we called it for a while) a plan of some sort is required to deal with the mob should one be encountered. It should be part of the organisation’s risk and crisis planning and taken seriously.

It is a while since I have had to worry about such things, but through the eighties and nineties into the noughties it was my problem and there were times when the biggest problem was not the possibility an unruly mob at the gates, but the unruly mob of senior managers clamouring for action.

There is a notion that the people in the upper echelons of an organisation have qualities above those of the people that they employ. This is basically true, but there are times when all sense of proportion is lost and stupidity takes over.

One example was a building that was under the flight path to an RAF base, our location, given the prevailing winds, normally being under the landing path. Within our disaster plan we had allowed for a normal major emergency evacuation of the type where we would hand over to the emergency services, but the personnel director insisted that we should have a specific plan for an aircraft crashing onto the site. I took the existing plan to the Fire Service who had no comment and then to the liaison officer at the airbase. Over coffee he solved my problem; “Why not just extract that bit of the plan and have it as an appendix with a title like “In the event of an Air Crash” he suggested. I did that and my problem went away.

Another piece of lunacy was the dreaded Millennium Bug. As the nineties ground to a close the threat of computers crashing and all sorts of problems occurring at midnight on the dreaded day were being bandied around. It was thought that there would be widespread civil unrest and that rioting and looting would ensue. This we considered with regard to the city centre properties in the portfolio that I was managing. We would have the normal small teams of security guards in each of these sites and my plan was that these people had a way of safely evacuating themselves in the event of trouble.

The idea was that we would keep the people safe and if a building got trashed then we had business continuity and recovery plans in place, but the likelihood of trouble seemed very remote. My own experience of computer programming and software design from the previous decade was that the century roll-over was covered.

Late one evening just before Christmas I got a call at home from one of the directors based in a City of London site. Effectively they wanted me to be at their building overnight on the 31st December in case of trouble. Quite what I was expected to do if faced by a rioting mob I was not sure, but they were insistent. I was equally firm about not going and I didn’t. Nor did they. Nor did the mob assemble.

Today though it is not a joking matter and there are real threats from mob behaviour that need to be addressed. How you deal with that is up to you if it is your responsibility, but my advice is to think first of the safety of your people. Then brush up on your business continuity and recovery plans so that the relevant people are aware and thinking about what they will need to do. Be realistic and think about what you will do if any part of the plan does not work. Contigency plans for your contingency plan? You had better believe it.

I hope that you have not problems, but good luck if you do. Just remember the golden rule; people before property.

how well can you manage if a crisis overtakes you?


Welcome back to all of those who have taken time off over the holiday season and are re-joining those of us who have had to, or like me have chosen to, work through.

It has been a fraught couple of weeks for some with a series of disasters some of which are ongoing. These things can happen on any day of the year, but when they happen at a time when many are expecting to be celebrating they are more poignant. Read more…

making decisions is easy; making good ones takes skill (plus a little courage)


The recent flooding raises the question of risk management and, whilst the weather issues are an extreme, the principle of integrating risk management into the decision making process is brought into sharp focus. Read more…

things that go bump in the night – a Halloween special tale from the facilities front line

October 29, 2012 1 comment

“We’ve lost about 100 yards of fence”.  The words were succinct and, as it turned out, accurate, but when you hear them on the ‘phone at 0130 having been woken from a deep sleep to take the call they take a moment or so to register.

Outside the wind howled and the rain lashed on the windows. It was a foul night, but I was on call so I told the security guard who had rung me that I would be with him in about ten minutes and dragged on some warm clothes. My waterproof hi-viz gear was in the back of the car and I was quickly on my way. Read more…

learning from crisis management


Last month our fridge-freezer had a glitch just as we hit that warm spell. The fridge wasn’t cool enough and the freezer stopped freezing. The auto-defrost had iced up and we had to write off some of the contents, but I found a cure and we got it working again, and over the weeks since some weekly maintenance had kept it working well. Read more…

Why am I so keen on planning and preparing for crisis management? I was born to it

September 5, 2011 1 comment

I’ve written here a few times about various aspects of incident management and, as one or two have remarked, maybe I’m a bit of an anorak about these things. They may have a point because, to some extent, incident management has been with me since I was in short trousers.

My childhood was spent living on country estates, more that usually with a farm attached. We didn’t own these places, my parents worked there so that explains my interest in customer service; I was, in fact, born into service. But the incident management side of things comes from that background too. In recent years risk assessments have become a fad in many ways, but they are just a formalisation of what I was taught to do in the late 1950s by people who understood such things intuitively.

So how does what I learned all those years ago down on the farm fit with the management of modern property? Well take one sort of incident management that a typical facilities management team should have down pat, that of fire. One of the things that we handled with considerable frequency was fire. Not just the risk of fire (and I have seen a barn fire at close quarters), but managing fires that we would start on purpose. We would have at least one managed conflagration a week as we burned refuse, burned off fields, bracken or whatever. And when I talk about burning refuse I mean bonfires that the average village would be proud of on November 5th; you can create a huge weekly pile from a 50+ acre estate.

These things are not done willy nilly, they are carefully arranged, taking into account the wind, time of day and nature of what you are burning. A compost heap large enough to keep  Time Team busy excavating it for a week will burn for days if it spontaneously combusts. Siting the bonfire, compost heap or whatever is carefully thought through. Precautions are taken and what you’ll do if things don’t go as planned are worked out. We were taught to understand consequences and about accepting responsibility.

On a farm or large country estate there is a lot of serious kit and danger lurks all around. As kids we were brought up to understand and respect things, so maybe it should be no surprise that it is so ingrained in me. That’s not to say that I don’t take risks; I do, but I think about it first. From what I learned as a child I got to think about things like always checking my escape route(s) when I stay somewhere away from home, like counting the seat rows between me and the nearest two exits when I fly, like my winter survival kit that I carry in the car from November through March.

I had the benefit of learning about these things to the degree that it became automatic. It was only later in life when I became responsible for large numbers of people that I began to think about it and to analyse what I was doing and why as part of developing drills and desktop run throughs. When you have a bloody great fire every week on purpose you are doing it for real, but when you are running big buildings, thankfully, you don’t, so you need to have dummy drills.

Practice does make perfect which is why I have ridden my teams hard on these things, and that is why we coped so well with some of the incidents that have described in these columns. It’s in my blood.