Jeff Judy

Jeff's Thoughts - April 29, 2009

We Pause for a Message from this Virus . . .

As I write this (April, 2009), there is no question about the leading headline, hour after hour, in all the news media: updates on an outbreak of a new variety of swine flu that has killed a good number of people in Mexico, as well as popping up in small pockets in other locations across North America. The word "pandemic" is not only in the air, it is a little more real in most minds, a little less theoretical, than it was a month ago.

Timing is everything, they say, so it is a remarkable coincidence -- rather than some sort of prescience, I assure you -- that the previous two issues of Jeff's Thoughts dealt with the topics of preparing for and responding to disasters and catastrophes, like pandemics. What might we apply, and extrapolate, from those articles, in the current threatening situation?

What should your first actions be, as this world health drama unfolds?

First, most of my readers are not directly affected by cases of this flu at this point. If you are unfortunate enough to feel the direct impact already, I hope you had a plan in place that can speed up your response. In any case, your initial strategy should be to "treat the symptoms," as I suggested in my most recent e-zine, that is, to focus on where the problem affects your operations, not the cause. For instance, staff shortages produce the same problems for you whether they are caused by illness or by transportation breakdowns.

Second, do a quick review of your customers to help you anticipate whether and when their problems will become your problems. Look particularly at business clients who might be affected immediately by this outbreak. Do you work with businesses who have some connection to Mexico? Do any of your customers depend on Mexico as a supplier, as a market, as a "product" (travel)? Are you aware of businesses whose employees travel to Mexico frequently? These customers may have their usual ways of doing things severely disrupted by the swine flu situation, and if they are already struggling in this difficult economy, this additional blow could have serious repercussions for their financial health.

Third, you should assign responsibility and set a schedule for your "plan for a plan" right now. Take steps to make sure your disaster recovery plan is assigned to capable people (outsiders, if necessary), whether you are developing it for the first time or reviewing it for updating. But do not wait until you "have time," after all this excitement, to work that out. Make the commitment, with a date for the next meeting on the subject, right now.

After all, you can see how quickly this outbreak has appeared, and expanded. A couple of weeks ago, there wasn't a hint of the disruption that the Mexican economy is already experiencing, and that some businesses and locations elsewhere on the continent are beginning to feel.

As I pointed out just a few weeks ago, people have to know the first step they will take, if disaster strikes, regardless of their positions in your organization. The detailed plan can carry a lot more information, and be assigned to a couple of specific people. But knowing that critical first reaction is something that should be part of every job, and internalized by every employee.

Some banks are ready for this. I shared the story here, a month ago, about how a bank that I worked for was able to respond to a catastrophic fire, destroying headquarters, with fairly normal business activity (from the customer's perspective) almost immediately after the event. Planning and preparation in secure times kept the doors open when disaster struck.

If you look at this current emergency, perhaps without much of a disaster response plan, and think about all that you need to develop and think about, you will be overwhelmed. So whittle it down to first responses. Look at your portfolio, look at any immediate threats to your operations, and take the first step of committing to opening the discussion, beginning the work of improving your preparation for the next unpleasant surprise.

Small steps taken now will protect you much better, down the road, than comprehensive actions taken much later.

As we are seeing right now, "much later" can arrive much earlier than anyone thought.