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Are we fear-mongers? Business continuity and the boy who cried wolf

Nick Johnson, CBCP, discusses the pros and cons of using a ‘fear-based’ approach to getting business continuity buy-in.

I was speaking to a colleague the other day about how she runs her business continuity tests. She stated that she often starts her tests by asking: "What do you fear the most?" This struck me as a very direct way of approaching the subject. One that all of us business continuity planners have used at one time or another. But the more I thought about it, the more I felt that it was a negative way to do things.

Fear is healthy. One cannot be human without living with fear. Fear injects itself into every part of our lives; from finances and relationships to clowns and alligators. Fear can be rational, as the former two examples illustrate, or irrational, as the latter two examples. Living in Connecticut, the threat of a random alligator attack is exceedingly slim. Yet, I am still terrified of them. Fear can, and does, affect everything we do; from our smallest thoughts to our grandest actions.

And yet, we manage to get up everyday, go to work and function as positive productive members of society. We learn from an early age to live with our fears; to keep them in perspective and move beyond them. We become used to them. Despite our apparent acceptance of these fears, we all abhor them.

Short term benefits
As business continuity planners use fear it is generally seen as a positive thing. The short-term effects are that our clients take their business continuity planning seriously, dedicating the appropriate amount of resources to the creation, update, and maintenance of their plans. By focusing on our fears, we bring the risks faced by an entity into clear focus and find ways to mitigate them.

A given person's focus or attention is rooted in the ability to filter out extraneous information. In our daily lives, we are bombarded with information: be it the soft muzak playing in the elevator, the news feed on the TV in Starbucks, or just the sound of your coworker typing away in the next cubical.

That said, it is not just cold logic that allows us to direct our focus on a single task. For proof, all you have to do is turn on the TV. Can you imagine a commercial that only told you about how a given product performed? Commercials like that don't exist. Why? Because marketers know that to capture your attention, they have to make you feel something. Emotions and attention are connected in complex ways. Gerald Matthews and Adrian Wells, the authors of Attention and Emotion: A Clinical Perspective (1994), start their recent survey paper with the following claim:

"[e]motions and attention are intimately linked. States of emotions influence both the contents of consciousness and performance on tasks requiring selection of stimuli or intensive concentration" (1999, p.171).

In short, how we feel emotionally will have a direct impact on our ability to sort through vast quantities of information to find the relevant kernel we need. More than that, our emotions act as a meta-filter sorting through the infinite amount of input.

Looking at the world around us, using intellect alone, will not necessarily help us determine what we ought to notice. Pure reason alone will not give us salience. Nor will it give us the insight into practical matters such of choice and strategy.

"Pure reason does not tell us whether to choose to minimize the greatest possible losses or to maximize the greatest possible gains, for instance. The claim, then, is that the emotions' biological role is to make up for these different shortcomings of pure reason. "(Faucher and Tappolet; Consciousness & Emotion 3:2 (2002), 105-144.)

It is our emotional reactions that drive focus; bringing into clarity the issues that need our attention. Above all other emotions, fear has the ability to crystallize our attention.

Therefore, it seems to make sense that we, as business continuity planners, use fear to grab the attention of our clients. Fear is undoubtedly effective in this because once we have our client's attention; we can convince them that attending to their business continuity needs will be a benefit to their organization. Fear is the whip that cracks over their head. Our guidance gives the client direction to act on that fear.

Conversely, fear can also paralyze. Some respond to threats by refusing to move. They are the proverbial "deer in the headlights." They become intransigent and unwilling to take the necessary action. In business continuity planning this is generally a rare and extreme response. More common and insidious is the numbness that fear brings.

Long term harm
The use of fear has diminishing returns. What worked once, will often not work a second time.

"...numbness can also be interpreted as a type of blindness. Psychological studies in attentional or perceptual blindness refers to the inability of noticing an object when it is actually there." (Yang, numbness, U. of Chicago School of Media Theory, 2003)

Repeated exposure to the same stimulus for anyone will bring about a lessening of the response. Think of Chicken Little or The Boy Who Cried Wolf. Human nature allows us to adapt to our environment. That thing which kept us from sleeping at night last year is only a mild annoyance this year. Next year we may simply ‘blow by’ it without a second thought.

As an example, business continuity planners were seen as critically important following the horrible bombings of September 2001. This was a natural, human response. With the terrorist events of at the forefront of our minds, who wouldn't be thinking of how to survive such a threat? Now, ten years later, we have learned to live with that fear and business continuity is just one more box to check off. In short, we have relegated the risks of terrorism to the back of our mind. Using fear as a motivator to drive business continuity planning has this same effect. Like a drug addict who needs a bigger fix each time to get the same high, a business continuity planner who relies on fear to motivate his or her clients will need to bring a bigger risk to the table each year to get the same response.

Worse still is the negative impact that using fear as a motivator has on our relationships. It's said that familiarity breeds contempt. This clearly holds true for the use of ‘fear’ as a motivator in business continuity planning. Who among us has not seen the reluctance or dread evident in a client when scheduling a meeting or test? This reluctance is born not only from the fact that most people view business continuity planning as not within in their primary responsibilities. It also comes from the fact that over the years, they have heard over and over what horrible things can happen to their enterprise

These interactions build up negative feelings toward those who bear the messages. While we, as business continuity practitioners, may be fascinated with the risks involved with bird flu or some other event, most non-practitioners view these events with dread. For the non-practitioner, dealing with such ‘What ifs’ is an uncomfortable event. With repeated exposure to such uncomfortable discussions, the negative feelings brought on by the difficult topics become associated with the person presenting the information. The discomfort our clients feel toward the disruptive event is transferred to the person who presents the event. Simply put, their dread of talking about such risks becomes dread of talking to ‘us’.

Imagine if a new family moved to your neighborhood. Their son is 16 and is a reckless driver; ignoring stop signs and speeding down your street. You are forced to live with the risks of having a reckless teen driver in your neighborhood. Naturally, you take steps to keep your family safe: keeping children out of the street, wearing seatbelts, driving cautiously. For the most part you are successful in combating the problem. Yet, when you see the teen at the store, do you wave a friendly "hello"? Do you ask if he would babysit your children? No, you don't. While the teen presents no threat inside a store or looking after your children, you cannot help feeling the negative emotional impact of his driving outside of the threatening situation. Consciously or not, you carry that negativity with you in all interactions with the young man.

This lingering negativity can have dramatic affects in our ability to perform our duties. Unless a business continuity planner has a direct mandate from the ‘C suite,’ he or she is very much dependant on the relationships he or she has built with his clients. Even with a direct mandate, thorough and complete work is almost always obtained more easily through the give and take among colleagues than through an order to comply.

Seeking a better way
So how are we to proceed? In short, we must find a path to a more positive approach. The first step in what I propose is to identify what our clients' value. Find out what makes them tick. Are they a manager who fiercely values performance? Then couch your discussion with him or her in terms of enhancing that performance. Show how the business continuity process can identify areas which can be enhanced through risk mitigation and training. Discuss the benefits of a practiced business continuity plan in an actual recovery operation. Do they hold their employees safety and well being above all else? Then couch your discussion in terms of the employees' health and safety. Whatever it is that make your clients tick; use that to drive the process.

The next question a business continuity planner needs to ask is: what are the critical processes? Many of us have been trained to look for the single points of failure; the bottlenecks that if stopped would halt any number of processes down the line. Of course, we must continue to do this. But instead of framing the discussion around a failure, seek to put the discussion in a positive light. Highlight the dependencies and the importance of maintaining the function. Instead of planning for its failure, focus on strengthening the operation and making it resilient. Strive to make it disaster tolerant.

This is an area where business continuity planners can truly shine. By highlighting the critical processes, we can display the need for additional resources. If a single person performs a critical task, put forward the idea that cross training among employees will help the office deal with the inevitable sick days or vacations. If a critical application resides on a single server, discuss how the application can be run on two different servers or virtualized to mitigate against the risk of an IT failure. In short, show how a solid business continuity plan can be useful not only in the major crises but also in confronting the everyday problems.

Finally, make business continuity planning human. Business continuity planning, in essence, is about people and processes; but first and foremost are the people. Not only will a proper plan protect a company or department, it will protect those people who work within it. A company with a well-practiced plan has employees that know how to deal with a disruption. They will know the procedures to keep them safe and keep operations rolling.

Moreover, planning for a disruption not only protects their health and well being, it protects their ability to provide for their family. A solid, functional business continuity plan means that if a disruptive event occurs, they will continue to work and garner a paycheck. And this applies to both short term and long term concerns. We've all heard the figures concerning the survival of business with and without business continuity plans following a disaster. Having a business continuity plan will dramatically increase the chances that our client's business' survives. That in turn provides for the welfare of that business' employees.

Does this mean that I am advocating a complete abandonment of ‘scare tactics?’ No. I don't think we, as an industry, could end the practice if we wanted to. A rational discussion of the risks faced by a person, department or company has to be part of any business continuity planning experience. However, we should be wary about using the ‘fear factor.’ While it clearly has some benefits, I would argue that the benefits are short lived and that in the long term the practice can be detrimental to our efforts. Business continuity succeeds or fails because of our relationships with our clients. As we practice our trade, we need to be well aware of the long term affects our actions have on those relationships.

Author
Nick Johnson CBCP, has 13 years experience working in a number of business continuity roles both public and private. In his current role at Webster Bank, Nick coordinates the testing, maintenance and update of 40 BC plans as well as managing the Disaster Recovery program. Nick Lives in Connecticut with his wife and three children.
Contact: nick.m.c.johnson@gmail.com

MAKE A COMMENT

Perhaps we should substitute ‘fear’ for ‘risk’ and position Business Continuity Planning as a defensive (protecting what you have) AND offensive (giving you an edge) tool.  Thereby presenting some balance to something that most likely is going to be a ‘grudge’ buy.  A risk based approach at least presents options around appetite and capacity.  However, in both regulated & non-regulated environments this is easier said than done as it seems dependent upon behaviour and culture.  Even so, a prophet of doom will likely to sap the strength from the best of us.  So if you are that person – expect to get fired or worse, just ignored!

Alan Pawsey, Arc Risk and Resilience.

•Date: 25th August 2011 • Region: US/World •Type: Article • Topic: BC General
UPDATED 5TH SEPTEMBER 2011

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