The Ant and the Grasshopper: Continuity Planning & Situation Awareness

Success in projects large and small often relies on a great deal of “situation awareness”—the awareness of dynamic factors integral to and surrounding a project and of the extent to which a change in one variable affects the whole.

Some of the most critical variables in any project are, of course, humans.

Situation awareness must always include an assessment of the human environment within which a project is taking place, and if you are the leader (an executive or project manager), you must be prepared to adjust your style and approach based on the personalities, power relationships, motivations, and intentions you encounter.

If that sounds multi-layered and complex, it is. The human brain is still the most powerful and creative computer we know of, but all that grey matter comes with baggage. Even before actual work ever gets done, leaders must seek common understanding and trust—and appropriate boundaries. There are no true cookie cutter management applications or algorithms—we always have to make adjustments.

A Modern Fable

To illustrate, let me tell you a story from my past experience—a kind of modern version of “The Ant and the Grasshopper!”

At the beginning of the last decade, I was consulting with a multi-national corporation when continuity planning became a hot topic. It was a sidebar to the Y2K debacle, when companies were forced to make adjustments based on short-sighted computer programming that had not provided for the switch from “1999” to “2000.”

As 2000 approached our organization realized that anything programmed with dates—security systems, printers, engineering controllers—might not work if relying on date-driven information. (In a related example, when I was working for a very large media company, a building security system was tested for the year 2000; it locked all the doors in corporate headquarters and would not be opened without being completely dismantled!)

“What Are Your Priorities?”

As information officer, responsibility for continuity planning fell on me and my staff. Since we were a federal contractor, we used the methodology prescribed by the General Accounting Office (GAO), and we hired a “Big Five” consulting firm to perform third party validation.

These two decisions created pressure for buy-in by the organization to participate. Additionally, we didn’t just make this a Y2K exercise, but a business continuity exercise, posing the general question, “How long can you afford to not do business, and what are the priorities to maintain minimal operations?”

The study became an exercise in situation awareness within a complex system, conducted over six months.

It produced an inventory of facilities and IT systems—essentially anything that had a controller in it, including lowly stamp machines. Items were rated for effect on mission critical operations. Scenarios were examined for contractual, political, and natural incidents that could cause disruptions. These were run through multifunctional teams for review, testing, and prioritizing. We created emergency plans, maps, and communication trees that included meet-up locations, service level agreements from providers, and alternative phone systems.

A Natural Disaster

Every office participated, but one. And sure enough, a disaster struck that office causing a continuity crisis—its facility’s roof was ripped off in a hurricane. Because there was no continuity plan in place, this subsidiary and the project office were unable to meet contractual requirements, and they both went out of business.

Meanwhile, through advance testing, every system but one mail machine in the corporate office had been addressed prior to Y2K and coped with the date change just fine. And when the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks happened, the same plan was used and the organization quickly locked down project areas that were considered susceptible to terrorist strikes.

The teamwork and collaboration involved in this project must be noted. Due to the complexity of the organization and the services rendered, there was no reliance on an individual—or, to allude to another fable, on the boy with a finger in the dyke.

Teams were important and players had to be able to assume each other’s roles. For example, when the voice-over IP communications lines went down briefly during the Sept. 11, 2011 attacks, two remote engineers stepped in for the IT people, who were busy being safety marshals.

By referring to the Emergency Manual, individuals in Alabama and North Dakota were able to reroute communications lines through emergency dial up connections that the organization maintained for critical connectivity. Not only was safety ensured—and calm maintained—but investor and public relations kept communications channels open, even as some larger companies were affected by leaks and improper information disclosure by employees in the midst of that crisis.

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