Disaster Planning 101: Updating your Business Contingency Plan
Whether you call it a disaster plan, a contingency plan, a strategic plan, or even just a scenario plan, the goal is the same: thinking through potential problems and coming up with possible solutions long before you ever need them. As the past few years have demonstrated, it can be hard to predict future challenges, but having even a rough framework in place for what to do when they come knocking at your door can mean the difference between coming out singed but whole, or watching your business go up in flames.
But knowing that you should have a contingency plan, and knowing how to actually put one together are two different things. So here are the top 10 elements to keep in mind as you sit down to plan for the future.
1. First and foremost, sit down and start thinking about all the crazy things that could happen to your business.
Make a list. And don’t be afraid to include even the most absurd of scenarios in this step — this isn’t about making a concrete plan just yet, it’s about thinking through all the ways your business could be impacted by things outside of your control. Fire? Flood? Hurricane? Power outage? Pandemic? Alien invasion? If it could have a negative effect on your business, put it on the list.
2. Now narrow that list down.
You probably don’t actually need to have a plan for alien invasions, no matter where you live, but others, like tornadoes, hurricanes, or earthquakes could vary depending on your geographic location. If you are starting from scratch and have never done a disaster plan before, consider limiting it to the top five most likely right now. You can always add more later; disaster plans should ideally be updated at least once a year, and that is an ideal time to add another set of contingency plans for another scenario not currently covered.
Another thing to keep in mind as you evaluate which scenarios you’re going to focus on first is the severity of each one. If you are in an area where the power regularly blinks for a few minutes during peak times, but is never out for more than a few minutes, then it might not rank high on the list. Whereas something like a flood or a fire, which is less likely to happen but will have far more extreme consequences, might rank higher. This is a chance to sit down with your stakeholders and have a good debate about which scenarios should be covered by your plan. Consider using a rating system, like high, medium, or low; or red, yellow, or green; to rank scenarios and make it easier to see which ones to focus on first.
3. Evaluate your business.
Make a list of every single piece of equipment, every roll of substrate, every computer, every piece of paper, and every employee. Know where the most important documents are stored, and who the most important people are. While you likely already know this information as part of the day-to-day operations, including it here as a part of the planning process can help later, when you sit down to actually start making the hard plans. Having that list handy will make it easier to spell out policies and procedures, since you won’t have to worry about forgetting anything — or anyone.
4. Create an outline.
This should be the format that every single contingency plan uses. You want it to be uniform, so if it does need to be pulled out and used, it is easy to find the exact information needed without having to search. An example of information to include:
✓ The trigger — What will cause this specific plan to be put into action. You will want it general enough to be applicable to a range of similar challenges, but specific enough to really address any unique issues. For example, having a plan for a fire, rather than one for a fire in the press room, one for a fire in the mailing department, etc., will be specific enough to be useful, but not get bogged down in the details.
✓ The immediate response — What actions need to be taken right away, in the first hour or two? This can include evacuation for things like floods or fire, or asking everyone to stay in cases of a blizzard where it’s dangerous to be out on the roads.
✓ The long-term response — What actions need to be taken in the first day? The first week? The first month? Longer? While these can be more general ideas rather than concrete decisions, planning out possible reactions when you’re not in the middle of a crisis can make your response faster and more productive.
✓ The people — A list of all the key managers, ranked in order or importance along with contact information. Make sure there are multiple ways to contact them. This is one of those elements that you’ll want to update annually at the very least, to ensure you always have up-to-date information on hand. Consider also keeping a contact list of all of your employees in this document as well — if part of the response is to alert employees to a problem and/or reaction, having all of that information already compiled and easy to access with the contingency plan will speed things up.
✓ What are the responsibilities — Who is in charge of what in the response plan? If you know ahead of time who is in charge of each element, it will ensure any disaster response is fast and efficient — there won’t be a lot of people standing around wondering what to do because you will have already decided on those roles and spelled it out as part of the planning process. Furthermore, designating one person to be in charge of keeping the contingency plans updated is also a great idea, as you won’t have to worry about it being lost in the shuffle.
✓ What is the timeline — Since your responses will include both short and long-term reactions, when should each of them be triggered? Don’t just have a vague list of things to do, be specific on how much time must pass to trigger the next response, and approximately how long each one should take.
5. Fill out the plan.
Now that you have the list of the scenarios that are both the highest risk and the most likely, as well as the outline of how you want your contingency plans to flow, it’s time to start filling it out. This is where you make a step by step plan for each of the contingencies you identified. Sit down with your team and think through each scenario — what could happen? How could it happen? What should the response be? Use it as an exercise — “If we had a fire in the building and one of our presses was damaged, what steps should we take?” or “If another wave of COVID hits and we’re forced to shut our doors again for a period of time, how will we cope with that?” You don’t need to come up with every single “what if” in existence, but it’s a good idea to work through a few of them for each scenario you’re planning for. This will help you identify possible places where there could be confusion or additional challenges, and allow you to come up with a few ideas on ways to mitigate them.
6. Get input.
No plan happens in a vacuum. Don’t be afraid to solicit feedback from a range of sources — your pressroom operator might have insight into things you can do to mitigate a problem in that department that you might not think of, for example. Your disaster plans will be far richer, and far more relevant, if they take into account the expertise from everyone across your organization.
7. Acquire any identified supplies.
Perhaps your plan shows that no matter what happens, your shop will be just fine — and that’s okay! But for others, if you determine, for example, that one response could be to move to a backup generator, then you’ll need to make sure you have a generator that can support the power needed — and the necessary fuel to run it in the event it has to be turned on. As you go through the planning process, you should be able to spot places where having specific equipment or resources could make a big difference, and it is up to the business to decide which ones are ultimately worth investing in.
8. Share the plan.
A contingency plan doesn’t do any good if no one knows about it. Make sure all of your managers are intimately familiar with it, know where to find it, and know what their duties will be in the event of an emergency. But also make sure all your employees are aware of it, and what actions it spells out. It can alleviate a lot of stress and anxiety if employees know that management is already thinking ahead and has a plan should something go wrong.
9. Don’t be afraid to update on the fly.
Sometimes, situations change rapidly, and your contingency plan — even the most well-crafted plan — can’t keep up. Contingency plans are living documents — they can and should change as circumstances are updated. COVID-19, in particular, has shown that what works to keep the business going today might not work tomorrow. So being flexible and willing to tweak plans as you go, using the original ideas as a rough guideline, can mean the difference between a truly fast and efficient response to changing situations, and floundering when things don’t go as expected.
10. Rinse and repeat.
This entire process should be repeated annually at the very least. This is a chance to update any outdated information, make sure the current plan takes into account the equipment, space, and personnel that are active today, as well as ensure all of the on-the-fly tweaks are evaluated and either included or refined for the future. This is also a great time to add new scenarios that might not be as high a risk, but that the business would benefit from having a plan to deal with them nevertheless.