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Managing complexity in your business continuity planning

Ray Abide looks at the concepts of detail complexity and dynamic complexity in the context of business continuity planning.

Over an extended period of time, I believe that a conventional instinct is to add more specifics and detail to our business continuity plans. This may be guided by increasing complexity in the subject business or by our improved understanding and planning maturity brought about by plan exercises or experience gained by plan activation during a crisis.

While this increasing detail and texture in the plan may seem to be an improvement or an enhancement, it is only true if the incremental planning addresses the type of complexity that can be reduced or eliminated, in advance.

In Peter Senge’s 1990 book, The Fifth Discipline, an excellent text on the topic of organizational learning, Senge distinguishes between two types of complexity (pages 70-71): detail complexity and dynamic complexity. He defines detail complexity as the sort of complexity with many variables, which is what we typically think of when we think of complex issues. The second type, dynamic complexity, refers to situations where cause and effect are subtle, and where the effects over time of interventions are not obvious. Traditional planning methods are not effective in dealing with dynamic complexity as dynamic complexity is much more qualitative in nature than is detail complexity. The variables and their interrelationships do not readily lend themselves to a solution provided by a comprehensive task list or documented instruction set.

Before I read Senge’s book, I referred to the business continuity method of addressing dynamic complexity by developing a plan that was more of a roadmap than a recipe. The idea is that the roadmap would guide a recovery team allowing their expertise and experience to navigate ambiguity whereas a recipe infers that this is unnecessary if the team strictly adheres to an all-inclusive recovery plan or recipe.

Dynamic complexity is the primary reason why I believe that team selection is critical to success. A crisis that causes the activation of a business continuity plan is a dynamic event and an understanding of dynamic complexity, not detail complexity, is essential to the resolution of the crisis. A balance of experiences, viewpoints and systems thinking in a well selected team can effectively counteract a dynamic, disruptive event.

The interactions of a well-rounded team with a focus on the interrelationships of the occurring events will enable them to reason through the crisis and return to normalcy in a way that cannot be planned in advance as would be the case with detailed complexity. The team will reason through which variables matter by using a developed sense of cause and effect. They will reduce or eliminate the subtlety between cause and effect in a manner that makes the solution more quantitative as the problem solving process iterates during the crisis.

This dynamic reasoning process, coupled with a high probability that the majority of complexity in the subject business is detail complexity, is why creating a detailed process-orientated BCP still is the best practice. It is simply not rational to ignore detail complexity and attempt to resolve a crisis event by only dealing with dynamic complexity. It is rational to reason through dynamic complexity to narrow the problem to one of mostly detail complexity which can be effectively addressed with a well-designed plan.

In dynamic problem solving a pragmatic approach works best.

If you are interested in a more detailed exploration of how to address dynamic complexity, I recommend reading The Fifth Discipline. The book details five disciplines of what Senge terms the ‘learning organization’. The fifth of these disciplines is systems thinking which integrates the first four disciplines: personal mastery, mental models, shared vision, and team learning.

The author:
Ray Abide is responsible for the business continuity program for a major financial services company and is a Certified Business Continuity Professional and Certified Public Accountant. Ray lives in Dallas, Texas. He may be contacted at www.linkedin.com/in/rayabide or www.rayabide.com.

•Date: 12th December 2013 • US/World •Type: Article • Topic: BC plan development

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