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 reading anything about Iraq.

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 they have received my CV.

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 even considering the possibility of something bad happening increases the odds that something bad will happen.

Taking a gamble

This is the kind of ridiculous superstition that is practised only by high-stakes gamblers and, apparently, anyone involved with government emergency planning. But realistic companies know that it is prudent to make contingency plans for four kinds of disasters: natural, man-made, anticipated and unanticipated.
People are most familiar with natural disasters, particularly if their company’s operations personnel conduct drills to teach employees how to deal with the possibility that the entire IT department could be inundated by a flow of molten lava or that wasps could build a nest in a senior executive’s pants. Unless a person has had direct experience working with me, they will be less familiar with man-made disasters, which increasingly have something to do with technology, such as accidentally mailing all your customers’ confidential credit information to the residents of a maximum-security prison.

Tales of the unexpected

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 delay the sending of credit card numbers to convicts. But what about unanticipated disasters, those things that no one ever thought could possibly 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?

"Others simply find it unnecessary to plan for potential disasters, preferring to be perfectly satisfied with the ones they already have"

Dan Danbom

While one would think that a company’s top operations people would consider the possibilities of these crises and give some thought to how they would keep the company running should one of them come to pass, it is clear that a lot of companies haven’t done this.

Role-playing

Most likely, the only people in a company who have considered these situations are the PR people, who have almost nothing to do with keeping a company running but almost everything to do with keeping a company running at the mouth.

They practise responding to disasters with a sort of parlor game, where one of them will blurt out, “explosion at major warehouse facility” and the first one 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 aversely affected” wins.

But 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 simply find it unnecessary to plan for potential disasters, preferring to be perfectly satisfied with the ones they already have.