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Contingency Planning

MERS, SARS, & Preparation

Disease outbreaks are one of the top “wild cards” in my field of forecasting. These are lower-probability but high-impact events. One is unfolding before our eyes. The best current information I’ve seen as I write this is here:

http://www.sciencemag.org/content/348/6240/1183.full (paywall)

I remember SARS well. I was pulled into a multi-day implication-focused discussion back in 2003 as a corporate team overseeing store openings in two major Chinese cities worked through the impact on their business and key decisions moving forward. I still use their situation as a case study in some leadership education sessions I conduct.

MERS CDC
Photo: CDC

MERS is a crossover disease from camels. It is an airborne and surface-contacted virus. It was discovered in 2012 in the secretive kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Until recently it was thought to have a 40% fatality rate.

Just like SARS it features media-friendly images of crowds wearing face-masks on Asian streets, soaring case identification, thousands of people in quarantine, rumors, and the beginnings of panic.
Instead of China the epicenter is South Korea. The WHO is onsite and the information coming from the government is much more forthcoming that what we struggled with back in ’03 with the Chinese.

The “index case” – the first known victim – had tremendously high amounts of virus in his lungs. The most virulent spread has been in the hospital that treated him. A term to remember – “superspreading event” – occurred. An entire floor of St. Mary’s Hospital, open only a couple of months, was contaminated with 30 identified cases stemming from the one patient. One of those who got that initial contamination went on to pass the virus to 36 new cases in another hospital. Frightening.

Now more than 2500 people in South Korea are in quarantine and the government is reporting new cases daily.

What to do?

Watch carefully. Seoul is a major airport location. Seek out information about how the illness progresses. There’s thought that it may be more virulent at different stages. But also keep a level head and take to heart that the virus is now fatal in just 10% of cases.

Begin to
prepare contingency plans if the disease either continues to multiply in South Korea but especially if it’s reported in new countries. Develop the implications on your organization, job, colleagues, community, and especially your family. Investigate which treatments are being used. Preemptively lay in a stock of face masks – which you understand will not protect the wearer but will prevent the wearer from spreading the virus if they’ve been exposed.

We’re not at the state where this outbreak threatens anything but this past year’s failure of the flu virus, the fairly regular reports of virus outbreaks from animal crosses (especially avian flu) should cause you to think that this is something that belongs in your long term thinking and organization’s s.
emergency preparedness.

Fear Most? Not the Right Question

One of the better edited digests of information I read regularly is the Wall Street Journal’s “CIO Journal.” It’s a compilation of news items that affect businesses from the perspective of the increasingly integrated information and communications technology side of enterprises.

This morning a question was posed. “…which of the following Black Swan events you fear the most: natural disaster, cyber attack or hack, a loss of top talent, or that one of your strategic vendors gets acquired.” The column will compile the results.

A laudable effort. I will be interested. But as a practical matter it’s not enough to be looking only at the obvious future events that will affect your organization. If it had been me, I would have used a widely flung and well-informed network like CIO Journal has in its readers for even more useful purposes.

Subject matter experts who’ve arrived at their conclusions independently can be the best forecasters of the events ahead that are NOT on the radar screen yet. That was one of the central tenets of the fine James Surowiecki book
The Wisdom of Crowds.

Will we see a natural disaster that will affect companies? A major cyber attack or hack? Loss of top talent? Changes in the competitive landscape? Of course. They’re givens, not forecasts. And we need to be prepared for all of them, not rank ordering which we fear most.

For the last two years I’ve moderated the largest worldwide meeting of information security professionals. When I poll that group about the probability of a major cyber attack 75% agree it’s imminent. The other 25% respond that it happened already or is now occurring regularly.

The overlooked future events are the ones we’re not thinking about right now. They’re hidden around the corner or over the horizon.

That’s why I use techniques in strategy sessions to draw them out. Lay them in front of leadership. Examine their place in the spectrum of what’s ahead. Contemplate the after-effects and consequences of their occurrence. Develop a range of approaches to deal with them. Perhaps even compile contingency plans to address them.

Should you plan for the obvious? Of course. A mark of a truly robust organization, however, is one that looks for the unseen, the hidden, the events ahead that are not obvious.