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Contingencies

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.

The Wild Card Weeks

Wild Cards are lower probability, high impact events. We’ve not seen a few weeks like the last three for some time. I’m not a believer in the adage of “threes” when it comes to these events but there are lessons and implications for the three we’ve just seen.
A volcano erupts and ash plus extreme caution by air travel regulators paralyzes a system we take for granted. Millions are stranded. Millions, by any currency measure, are lost. Alternative transportation comes into short-term vogue and overloads. Normalcy returns and we forget. But that volcano is still smoking and just because it’s not page 1 news we relax.
An oil platform explodes and lives are lost. Initial concerns about leaks are downplayed by company executives. Days pass and a slick surfaces. There’s action but no results. Now we’re staring into one of the great environmental disasters of our generation.
Initial reports of an over-reliance on a “blowout preventer” will be examined in hearings and investigations for the next 3-4 years. Recriminations from environmentalists take on stronger weight. A decision to open more offshore drilling could not have been worse timed. We realize that we’re totally unprepared for the scale of the problem, contingencies for stopping the gusher of oil on the bottom, and we’re unenlightened or purposefully ignorant about the risks of the technology.
A car bomb fails to detonate in New York’s Times Square. If it had a fireball would have killed dozens, perhaps more. Vehicles nearby would have burned and exploded. The ensuing panic would have injured hundreds. Midtown Manhattan would have emptied as reports of the notifying phone call leaked out. The caller said it was only a diversion for a larger device. Transportation would have slammed to a standstill. Offices remained empty for Monday morning. Absenteeism spiked. Broadway theaters cancelled performances. And the world’s biggest financial center would have stopped for days. The economic after-effect would have climbed into the hundreds of millions for a devices that cost only a few hundred dollars.
When the alleged bomber is arrested within 53 hours we relax. Investigations of the origin, connection to terrorist groups, evaluation of police response will come. There will be criticism of no-fly lists, airport security, even Craigslist. But when the crisis is over our thinking returns to the mundane.
Therein lies the problem. Extraordinary events like these should prompt contingency thinking and action. They should trigger better preparation, encouragement of public involvement, and planning for the next inevitable event. Too often we don’t look at the next event, only the last event.
I’m hoping the wild-cards of the past few weeks result in serious contemplation and preparation for:
  • Disruptions of air travel for substantial periods of time on the part of industry and government.
  • Development of even better alternatives to face-to-face communication to back up or reduce long distance travel.
  • Better technology and layered backup systems for the next generation of deepwater drilling like that necessary for tapping the even deeper oilfields off the coast of Brazil.
  • An acceleration of alternative energy sources and, most importantly, conservation.
  • A renewed recognition that many man-made systems have Faustian consequences that should be contemplated before adoption, not after.
  • Higher levels of vigilance among all peoples in all places for those that would indiscriminately destroy life.
  • Smooth transitions to pre-thought Plans B, C, D, and Z when the worst happens.