Government measures intended to stop the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic have significantly impacted the operations of companies and organizations across the globe. These measures are interrupting or ending business travel, impacting the ability of employees to work together in offices, and complicating and even severing supply chains. Globally, entire industries have nearly ground to a halt, many businesses are shuttered and millions of people are out of work. Because of these conditions, the next few months are going to be extremely difficult for anyone attempting to conduct operations — especially transnationally. In fact, for many of us, this period may very well prove the most challenging of our careers.
While the timing of the COVID-19 outbreak was unexpected, the fact that there was a pandemic was not. Following the global disruptions caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003, the H1N1 swine flu pandemic in 2009 and the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) in 2012, many businesses and organizations began to create contingency plans for pandemics, and those that did now have a distinct advantage amid the impacts of COVID-19.
Proper contingency planning is one of the best tools to help businesses and organizations prepare for and cope with the challenges posed by catastrophic events. Indeed, the importance of both personal and corporate contingency planning is something that we at Stratfor have stressed many times over the past 15 years, as seen in this piece I wrote in 2005, or this very good On Security column my colleague Ben West wrote in 2017.
Over the past several weeks I have spent much time talking with clients and others about how their contingency plans have been unfolding during the COVID-19 crisis. After those discussions, I thought this would be a great time to share some of my observations. For the purpose of this column, I am going to focus on corporate or organizational contingency plans rather than personal plans — though obviously personal contingency plans are also crucial.
The Importance of Contingency Plans
First, let me state the obvious: COVID-19 has been a very good reminder of how important it is to have contingency plans. Also, while the plan itself provides a critical guideline to follow during a crisis, perhaps one of the most crucial elements of the planning process is the preparation that accompanies it. Companies and organizations that went through the process of creating a pandemic plan would have recognized the impact that quarantines and lockdowns can have on travel and operations, and then begun to put ways to mitigate their impact in place.
Making a plan and beginning to take steps to prepare for an emergency provide a significant advantage. Those who did not have such contingency plans are now learning the importance of such plans in the form of the serious learning curve they now face as they scramble to catch up in a crisis environment where resources are scarce and options are limited. I'm not saying that it is impossible for companies or organizations to persevere and continue their operations through such a situation without such a plan, but it is so much easier to continue operations when there is a solid plan to serve as a guideline and prior preparation than it is when everything must be done on the fly in the middle of the crisis.
Having any sort of well-constructed and thought-out disaster contingency plan is better than no plan, and I have talked to people who are finding some success by adapting existing plans for natural disasters that would cause major disruptions in company operations, such as earthquakes or hurricanes, to the current COVID-19 situation. These plans will not map perfectly, but many of the steps taken before the emergency to ensure redundancy in systems, bolster the robustness of processes, establishing communication trees and channels, and other measures to help prepare for the inability to work from the office due to destruction by a natural disaster will also help during the present COVID-19 crisis.
But flexibility, creativity and adaptation will always be needed, even if a company or organization had a preexisting pandemic contingency plan. There is no such thing as a perfect plan. Contingency plans must be viewed as general guidelines to help provide direction during a crisis rather than strict scripts to be followed to the letter. When contingency plans encounter reality, things will inevitably unfold differently from the scenarios used to create the plan. Because of this, there will always be a need to adjust plans during their execution in order to adapt to the demands of a rapidly evolving and ever-changing situation. But again, it is always far better to tweak and modify an existing plan than it is to fly by the seat of your pants while trying to play catch-up.
Because of this, it is very important that crisis management teams carefully document their actions and the decisions made during the execution of their contingency plans — especially at points where the plan needed to be adjusted. This will allow them to further hone the plan for the next emergency, and there will be a next one. Once the crisis is over, a formal after-action review of the plan should be conducted that includes key decision-makers to ensure that the insights gained and lessons learned during the execution of the contingency plan will not be lost. By documenting them, one can then update the pandemic contingency plan — and very important, apply the applicable lessons to other contingency plans, such as those for natural disasters, terrorist attacks or other emergencies.
Contingency plans are never static. They must constantly be refined and adjusted in response to changes in technology, business operations and footprint, political and economic differences, and even changes in the urban terrain. (I once had to adapt an embassy emergency evacuation plan when a building was constructed on a piece of land that had been a soccer field we planned to use as a helicopter landing zone.) Applying lessons learned from past emergencies is a natural part of this refining process.
Your Time to Shine
Security professionals and crisis management teams often struggle to get C-suite attention to contingency planning, and it can be difficult to get leadership to allocate the resources needed to prepare before disaster strikes. The massive global impact of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic is ensuring that contingency planning is now front and center in every board room across the globe. This is the time to demonstrate how contingency planning and crisis response can ensure the future viability of the company or organization.
Security and crisis management teams oftentimes are viewed as cost centers instead of profit generators. In times such as these, however, security and crisis management teams can demonstrate the true value they bring to an organization. This is displayed not only in the form of contingency plans already prepared, but also in how those plans are being executed. Providing a calm, rational and professional presence during the crisis and providing a steady hand at the tiller as a crisis plan is being executed are immensely valuable.
Credibility and trust are also gained when security and crisis management personnel show they are adaptable, flexible and creative in finding solutions to the many problems and challenges that will inevitably surface during a crisis. In this way, they become seen as enablers of business during difficult times and circumstances rather than obstacles. I can't emphasize the importance of flexibility and creativity during a crisis enough — they are critical.
Speaking of flexibility, during a crisis it is also important to be flexible about roles and responsibilities — and the time clock. Crisis management teams are likely to be asked to perform tasks that would ordinarily fall out of their area of responsibility. This is especially so if they are demonstrating a calm demeanor and an ability to find solutions to the problems the organization faces. Obviously, extra tasks must be prioritized to ensure that these extra duties do not interfere with mission-critical tasks. But if taking care of an important extra duty requires some extra time and work, the effort will be worth the trust and confidence gained by being regarded as a competent problem-solver going forward.
The COVID-19 crisis is clearly enormously significant. For many companies and organizations, the disruptions caused by the response to the disease will have far greater impacts on operations than the disease itself. Security and crisis management professionals can help guide company and organizational leadership as they enact reasonable and prudent precautions to protect the workforce and business operations.
When Contingency Plans for Pandemics and Other Disasters Encounter Reality is republished with the permission of Stratfor Worldview, a geopolitical intelligence and advisory firm.