Thursday, February 26, 2015

Losing the Internet and disaster preparedness

If you live in northern Arizona, yesterday, February 25, 2015, we lost cell phone service and internet connectivity for much of the afternoon (approximately from 12:15 pm -5:45 pm for most people). Losing a key component of business operations can be very stressing and concerning. Often times, we do not know why things like these happen, more concerning however is, we do not know how long they will last. While we all feel the anxiety, we must look to these events as training exercises.


Image from Prescott, Arizona Facebook page, posted by Wendy Quinlan, February 25, 2015.


It is inevitable that something disastrous will happen. It might be an inconvenience like losing the power or internet for a few hours; or it could be a major incident like a flood, fire, or inclement weather which impacts operations for days, weeks, or a few months; or it could be a devastating event like earthquakes, tornadoes, or war which hinder operations for several months to years. Events like losing internet connectivity are especially ripe for testing your disaster preparedness. There are key items to consider, many of which are covered in disaster preparedness manuals. And, by the way, if you do not have one--you should. I'm not going to expound the items you can control about your business operations, rather I'm going to encourage you to examine the things you cannot control.

For example, you can have back-up systems, alternative projects, and disaster recovery experts at the ready, all controllable. But what about your workers? Have you taken a look at them in a "disaster" situation? If not, you might want to consider it. 

There are several key questions to ask, but they all boil down to this simple one --

"How are workers responding to this situation?"  

Are they responding well? 
Are they relying on rumors? 
Are they communicating honestly and effectively? 
Conversely, are you communicating honestly and effectively?
Where are the nodes of information?
Who are the natural communicators?
And, do your workers trust your communications?

With everything that happens in a disaster event, the interpersonal element is often overlooked. More critically, when "minor" events happen, often organizations ignore or misinterpret interpersonal interactions. These "minor" events offer a chance to observe how workers respond. Are there employees, some you might not expect, taking charge? Are there employees that communicate especially well in this situation? Are there employees that incite tension? Are there employees that people trust more than communications from leaders? Who is performing above their call of duty?

Observing some of these elements can help organizations better respond to future situations. Organizations should look to bringing in the "calmest" and most "trusted" employees, regardless of position or title, into the planning and preparation phases and committees. These individuals may just be able to ease tensions and facilitate communication. Just because a person has an important title does not always mean they have the emotional or interpersonal skills to handle disasters. They may be very good at their job...just not that job. Conversely, a relatively low-ranking employee may be "cool-as-a-cucumber" in the most stressful circumstances. More importantly, they may have an intrinsic or historical relationship with other employees that leads them to inherently trust that individual's words and actions. 

I think we inherently understand the "chain-of-command" and I believe we like to adhere to that philosophy whenever possible. It makes logical sense. But, when logic intersects with chaos, natural leaders emerge. They may not be able to run your business on a day-to-day basis. They may not have ambition beyond their desk. But, when bad things happen, they just may be the best asset you have in our organization.


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