Jeff Judy

Jeff's Thoughts - April 1, 2009

Are You Prepared to Be Prepared?

These days the word "disaster" usually comes with "economic" or "financial" in front of it, but we can't forget that there are many other potential catastrophes lurking out there, ready to seriously harm our businesses. In fact, given the stress we're already under, and the contraction of resources for responding to these threats, being prepared to execute an effective "business continuity plan," a disaster response strategy, is more important than ever.

In my own experience, I've had the privilege of seeing how powerful a well-designed, well-rehearsed disaster recovery plan can be.

For example, about a year and a half a ago, the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis suddenly collapsed, killing 13 people and injuring many others. One of the most memorable aspects of that terrible day was the immediate and coordinated response of emergency personnel. "First responders" were there almost instantly, many people (including a whole school bus full of kids) were helped very quickly, and the entire scene was remarkable for the lack of jurisdictional fighting, the absence of problems sharing information and resources among different parties.

Clearly this was a plan that had been well-designed, refined, kept up to date, and rehearsed so that when this calamity appeared out of nowhere, effective responses were launched within minutes.

Now, emergency responders are supposed to practice continuously. (I know -- I was a volunteer firefighter for 20 years!) We expect them to be prepared with the right responses at a moment's notice. But I've also had a remarkable experience in my life as a banker.

I was working for the regional bank Norwest in 1982 when our headquarters burned down on Thanksgiving Day. Yet by the following day, I was back in business. I didn't have an office, and we didn't have all the computer and e-mail and Internet options we have today. But I was able to work the phones that Friday afternoon because we had systems in place to make backup data available. It was slow, but I could contact my clients, answer their questions, get information about their accounts and other transactions, and we were still in business in spite of this catastrophic blow to our corporate infrastructure.

Why were we so prepared? As it happens, the company had completed and approved a detailed disaster recovery plan just a few months before the fire. In fact, the plan was so good that Norwest was able to sell what they had learned about planning for "business continuity" to other institutions!

But I have one question about that experience that will never be answered: would we have bounced back as quickly if that fire had happened a year, or two years, after that plan was developed?

You see, I know that many organizations put together plans and strategies around these issues. They develop thick documents and lovely flow charts, and then they store them someplace. Everyone hears about the importance of being prepared to deal with a sudden catastrophe, either when the plan is originally developed, or in response to a well-publicized catastrophe someplace else. (You can be sure that many other institutions familiar with Norwest either created, or updated, their recovery plans when they heard about our fire.)

But you have to ask yourself, in the event of the sudden occurrence of some serious threat to your ongoing business operations, what would be the first thing you would do?

  1. Respond to the threat very quickly by following the procedures in your up-to-date plan?
  2. Start looking for the plan, and try to figure out who is in charge of implementing the plan, so that that person can get everything else in motion?

If your employees are not aware, off the top of their heads, of their first responses to disaster, your plan probably isn't affording you much protection. Awareness and ongoing communication -- in other words, true "readiness" -- are your real protection from catastrophe, not a highly detailed process, not pretty diagrams, and definitely not overreliance on one or two staff members who may be out of the office the day disaster comes a callin'.