Preparedness is not a plan: It’s a culture!

All too often I find myself speaking to people about their organization’s readiness for crisis situations and marvel at the common response of “we have a plan”. Some of those plans are wonderfully presented – color coded, exquisitely detailed, and… sitting on shelves somewhere. Some organizations go to great lengths to cover every possible eventuality and hazard; meanwhile others rely on proverbially “flying by the seat of their pants”. While making sure I keep up with current industry trends I seek out plans developed for a variety of different types of “people focused” organizations (as opposed to the predominantly technology focused organizations) which I tend to work with.  As my eyes glaze over, I wonder about how the people in those organizations must feel – they (unlike me) have to read (and know) those plans!

The adage that is Murphy’s Law -- “Anything that can go wrong, will!” (with the extension: “… and at the worst possible time!”) – Is the essence of vulnerability. In assessing vulnerability, we look for the things that can go wrong. We start with the things people know to be problematic and work our way to issues that had not been considered. In other words, if there are problems with people (e.g. insufficient orientation to the facility), processes (e.g., unclear ways of communicating), or infrastructure (e.g., known problems not being repaired or otherwise addressed), those problems will be exacerbated during a crisis. Therefore, true preparedness is actually a byproduct of the organization’s effectiveness and efficiency.

Preparedness is not a separate function or responsibility in the organization, it is integrated into all the routines people have while performing their jobs. When there is a crisis people will act in the way that is most automatic for them. For that reason, we work on integrating emergency response routines into the ‘normal’ day-to-day routines. These routines need to be instilled during the orientation that new employees receive (and obviously integrated into the existing policies and procedures of the organization). A comprehensive orientation, not only provides written documentation of the job responsibilities, but also creates the mental framework and attitude with which people perform their job. During a recent meeting with an organization, I was shocked to learn that some of the employees did not know layout of the building (therefore not knowing all the various means of egress from the building). Not surprisingly, employees were very anxious (more than usual for those conversations) when discussing contingency planning.

Preparedness = Practice + Prevention + Proactivity

The organizational culture of preparedness is a function of three components: Practicing response, emphasizing prevention, and finally, being proactive. It is important to point out that these three are important in being prepared for anything: from financial crisis to violence, from weather to the environment. These three components involve people at all levels in the organization and together cover all aspects and levels of the organization.

Practicing Response

This component involves everyone in the organization from the CEO down.  Knowing what to do in a crisis is essential since very often there is no time to learn “on the job”. As in the aphorism: “You don’t want to be exchanging business cards in the middle of a crisis”. From the basic evacuation or sheltering in place, to more complicated processes involving backing up computers or accessing data, anyone not proficient with the response protocols puts an unnecessary strain on the other people in the organization, potentially hindering a successful response.

Emphasizing Prevention

Prevention occurs on all operational levels of an organization. From preventative maintenance of equipment to access control of the facility (e.g. access cards, stopping unauthorized or unwanted people from entering the facility), as well as routine internal ‘audits’ of accounting or ensuring the receptionist has the information necessary to perform his/her job. Prevention is a cultural value that needs to come from the leadership of the organization – it becomes engrained through simple actions like picking up visible trash or emphasizing the importance of rapid repair over short term cost containment (e.g. not waiting for regularly scheduled maintenance).

Being Proactive

Proactive organizations have leaders that think ahead and encourage their employees to do the same. They look for ways to improve effectiveness and efficiency and encourage employees to innovate (within reason, of course). They engage in “what if” scenarios (that can also act as a form of practice) and do not wait for external circumstances to dictate what they should be doing. These organizations try to anticipate market fluctuations, potential hazards, inevitable change and growth, and are keenly attuned to, and invest in their employees and their work satisfaction.  These organizations have the motivation to do things right, and to do the right things.

To summarize, the goal of preparedness planning is not merely a ‘plan’ – rather, it is organizational culture change and process enhancement. Many organizations go through a process to develop a “Crisis Plan” only to have that plan disappear and be a faint memory only a few years later. Coming up with the plan itself is the easier part.  Ensuring compliance and lasting cultural and attitude change is the real challenge!

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