Whenever I say "This could be a disaster," it means I am going to cook a new, complicated recipe; I have decided to attempt self-tattooing; or I am watching any game involving the Colorado Rockies. Whenever companies say "This could be a disaster," it means either that they are engaged in the prudent activity of contingency planning for unforeseen events or that they have received my resume.
Disaster planning for companies runs counter to the whole corporate ethic of always maintaining an outlook more optimistic than that guy on TV who promises you can have flat abs in two weeks. It is almost as if considering the possibility of something bad happening increases the odds that something bad will happen. This is the kind of ridiculous superstition that is practiced only by high-stakes gamblers and, apparently, anyone involved with FEMA. But realistic companies know that it is prudent to make contingency plans for four kinds of disasters: natural, man-made, anticipated, and unanticipated.
The type of crisis that people are most familiar with is the natural disaster, particularly if their company's operations personnel conduct drills to prepare for a scenario in which, say, the entire IT department is inundated by a flow of molten lava or wasps build a nest in a senior executive's pants. Unless they have had direct experience working with me, people tend to be less familiar with man-made disasters, which are increasingly related to misuse of technology, such as an employee accidentally e-mailing every customer's Social Security number to the residents of a maximum-security prison.
Anticipated disasters are likewise better known than unanticipated disasters. The airlines all have plans for dealing with crashes, food companies all have plans for dealing with tainted-food recalls, and utility companies all have plans for dealing with massive power outages that may delay the transfer of Social Security numbers to convicts. But what about unanticipated disasters, those things that even the biggest pessimist in your company doesn't really think will ever occur? What if your COO is caught using the Internet to set up a date with a Labradoodle? Or your CEO is kidnapped by renegade insurance agents and your company refuses to pay the ransom? Or it is learned that your top product, an accounting software package, causes incurable gingivitis?
While one would think that a company's top operations people would consider all possible crisis scenarios and give some thought to how they would keep the company running should the most unlikely among them come to pass, it's clear that a lot of companies haven't done this. In many organizations, the only people who have considered these types of situations are public relations personnel, who have almost nothing to do with keeping the company running but almost everything to do with keeping it running at the mouth.
They practice responding to disasters with a sort of parlor game, where one of them will blurt out "Explosion at a major warehouse facility!" The first to respond with "We have an excellent safety record and want to assure our customers that their supply of family-pleasing petroleum distillates will not be adversely affected" wins.
Why doesn't the rest of the company do more to prepare for life's big surprises? One reason is that companies can't afford surprises. Literally. It can cost a lot to do a molten lava flow drill, particularly if you do it realistically and have the asbestos waders and scuba tanks. It also takes a lot of staff time to prepare directions for everyone to follow in the event of a disaster like Katrina or Britney. With workforces and budgets both cut to the bone, most companies aren't going to spend resources on things that don't bring in revenue. Others find it unnecessary to plan for potential disasters, preferring to be perfectly satisfied with the ones they already have.
Pass the petroleum distillates!
Dan Danbom writes humor for a number of publications.His latest book is "Humor Meets Your Workforce: Make Laughter One of Your Organization's Goals."