Will We Be Prepared?

In the summer of 2004, the 9/11 Commission released its report on the attack on the World Trade Center in New York. The report was rather exhaustive and a bit dry. Nonetheless, I listened to the entire 21 hour report. While there were more details there than I really wanted to know, the inescapable conclusion was that we resist taking action on warnings, particularly if it is the first (or near first) of its kind.

As an example, safety specialists had been suggesting for years that airplane cockpit doors be hardened to prevent plane hijacking, but the airlines resisted. It was an expensive fix and prior to 9/11 most hijacking victims were ultimately released so it really wouldn’t save lives. After the passengers on the 9/11 planes did not survive, it was only months before all the airplane doors in the country had been replaced with hardened doors. And procedures were instituted to block off the front of the plane whenever the flight crew needed to leave the cockpit area. And that was only the beginning. All kinds of other changes were implemented to not only protect us against terrorist attacks, but to also assure us that the government was taking the risk seriously.

Currently as we deal with the novel coronavirus, it seems that we dismissed predictions of what is now happening and its consequences. That would suggest that there is something in our nature or our behavior that results in this approach. As a professional who focuses on marketing that is based on sound strategic planning, I am very curious about this and the extent to which it influences business thinking and planning for the future. Any strategic plan includes an examination of “opportunities” and “threats.” And not just in a general sense, but as specifically as possible.

‘People are really good at responding to the crisis that just happened, as they naturally imagine that whatever just happened is most likely to happen again. They are less good at imagining a crisis before it happens—and taking action to prevent it.’

The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis

Analyzing The Coronavirus of 2019

As we struggle with how long to lock down and when to loosen up and how much, we seem to be relying on what various people think as opposed to a previously formulated plan that was agreed upon in advance. We now know, however, that this pandemic was not a surprise. Various groups, think tanks, and experts had been predicting one for some time and had developed plans to follow when it came. And yet we did little to take the warnings seriously. These questions are plaguing me:

  • Is it that we think if we prepare and nothing happens that we have wasted money? It is puzzling since we know that not preparing will cost us significantly more than preparing, yet we still didn’t plan.
  • Is it because of the criticism that will come if the money spent on preparing is not needed because the low probability event did not occur?
  • Is that the responsible thing for the critics to do?

All these issues make the leadership of business today more challenging. And particularly now when, in addition to those urging us to prepare for the next pandemic (or the next wave of this one), we will have customers very afraid to leave their homes and do business with us.

How a Business Should Plan for What is Next?

My contention is that it is the responsibility of management to lead and prepare an organization for its future. The responsible thing to do is to evaluate low probability events and think through what the appropriate response should be. For example, a hurricane doesn’t hit Houston every year (though it seems like 100-year floods do). And we also must balance the cost of that preparation with the cost of not preparing.

Below I have listed some questions to ask your management team as you and they work to prepare a plan for what is coming next. Some of that “low probability” thinking may be called for. In addition, every management team now has the challenge of determining how to convince some of your customers that it is safe to do business with you.

‘It is the innovation that never occurs, and the knowledge that is never created, because you have ceased to lay the groundwork for it. It is what you never learned that might have saved you.

The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis

First, examine assumptions about the future. For example,

  1. What are you absolutely “convinced” will happen?
  2. What are you “convinced” can’t happen?
  3. What evidence do you have for these two “certain” positions?
  4. Are you loosening up too soon and improving the chance of another lockdown?
  5. Will hurricane season be 40% worse as predicted?
  6. Will the oil bust last longer than any of us want or think?
  7. Will employees be reluctant to come back to crowded offices?
  8. Will customers shun businesses where rules on face masks and social distancing are not enforced.
  9. What will the “next normal” look like?

Next, review your relationship with your customers.

  1. What does your business excel at?
  2. What can customers count on you for?
  3. What opportunities are there to please them?
  4. What are you not doing now that they would like you to do?
  5. How do you reassure the doubters that you are operating safely?

After that, consider your employees.

  1. How will we assure them it is safe to come back to work?
  2. Do we want to continue with some working from home?
  3. What tools and procedures do we need to provide them?
  4. What are their family needs and how can we assist?
  5. What new tools and techniques do we need to help them grow and develop.

Long term questions to ask.

  1. What long term changes are likely for us, our customers, and the economy?
  2. What health issues will we have to incorporate routinely into our operation?
  3. How will the Houston economy be affected and how will that impact us?
  4. What will be our approach to measuring and reacting to the changes that are coming?

‘Ignorance allows people to disregard the consequences of their actions. And sometimes it leads to consequences even they did not intend.’

The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis

Will We Be Prepared?

The above list is not exhaustive, but merely a beginning to shift the thinking of you and your executive team as you consider how to prepare for the future ― both short term and long term. It is fair to say that our previous normal is not going to return soon, if ever, and that we can’t just sit and wait. We also can’t plan based on how we feel but must identify reliable sources of information and use those to plan for both the short term and the long term.

The ultimate question, no matter the future is… “Will we be prepared?



Additional resources to consider:

Inside the Story of How H-E-B Planned for the Pandemic

Expert report predicts up to two more years of pandemic misery

The Fifth Risk – Book Review