It seemed to come out of nowhere, which I suppose can be said of almost any real crisis. One minute, while enjoying myself at a client retreat in Mexico, I learned about a few cases of flu in Mexico City. The next, schools were closing in Seattle.
Fortunately, this flu virus hasn’t turned into the virulent global pandemic that it could have been. But what if it had? What if I hadn’t made it back from Mexico―or I had carried the virus back with me and infected my colleagues at Bader Martin? What if the flu had developed into a full-blown crisis in Seattle, shutting down the city for an extended period of time?
Or what if it was your CEO or CFO that didn’t return from Mexico? Is your business prepared to survive a disaster?
Whether you call it disaster planning, business continuity planning, or just plain preparing for any eventuality, every business needs a basic plan to help it survive a crisis. The fact is, most crises―like a disease outbreak, or an earthquake, fire, flood, power outage, computer system failure, labor dispute, or sudden death or illness of a key employee―share a common characteristic. They have the potential to shut down your business for an extended period of time.
To minimize the negative impact, it’s important that you prepare in advance by developing, testing, and communicating your business’ disaster plan. What will you do to keep your business running if something catastrophic happens to your building, your employees, or to you?
Fortunately, for most small businesses, disaster planning doesn’t have to be difficult, time-consuming, and expensive. A good disaster planning process will generally include the following activities:
Identify Key Business Activities
You might begin the process by identifying your business’ key activities―for example, accounting, information technology (IT), manufacturing, customer service, and quality assurance. It’s important to have representatives of each important activity involved in developing the disaster plan.
Then develop a regular meeting schedule to complete the plan. It can be done as informally or formally as your needs dictate.
If any of your facilities are destroyed, or simply inaccessible or unusable for a period of time, you’ll need ready access to important information.
Ask your team to identify the information you’ll need to keep the business running, including such items as an organization chart; employee roster with contact information; schedule of major assets; lists of key advisors, suppliers, and clients with their contact information; various company policy documents; legal and insurance documents; and backups of accounting data and software programs, as well as related passwords and other vital computerized information.
Then determine how and where you’ll secure the documents and other information―including an offsite storage facility―and how you’ll provide access to them in the event of an emergency.
Identify Key Business Processes
Your disaster plan should include an explanation of the major processes and personnel for each of the key business activities you’ve identified, as well as information on interdependencies. If any of these activities are interrupted as a result of the disaster, or key personnel are not available, you’ll need this information to keep operating.
Identify Possible Disruptions to Key Business Processes
Armed with information regarding key business activities and processes―and the people required to keep them operating―it’s time for the what if analysis.
Brainstorm with your team to create a list of all the possible disruptions and disasters that could negatively affect your business, generally ranked in order of likelihood.
These can range from the minor (your delivery service goes on strike) to the moderate (an electrical storm disrupts your telecommunications system for a few days) and to the extreme (a major earthquake closes your main manufacturing plant and the corporate and accounting offices).
Develop a Simple, Practical Plan
Create a written plan for dealing with each possible disruption. It’s important that your plan be as simple and practical as possible.
Potential solutions for the disruptions above include establishing a relationship with a second delivery service as an emergency back-up; maintaining a list of important cell phone numbers and training staff on call forwarding capabilities; identifying a noncompeting manufacturing facility or contract manufacturer with additional capacity that you can tap into in the event of an emergency; and developing a routine software and data backup process with offsite storage.
Communicate your Disaster Plan
If your plan sits on a shelf or in a vault and is never referred to again―or at least not until you’re facing a disaster―the effort you put into creating it was largely wasted.
Communicate your plan, and train your staff in implementing it. In the process, you’ll have the opportunity to test key elements of the plan and make refinements as necessary.
Disasters rarely come with advance notice, so make sure to update your plan and retrain your staff on a regular basis. Your business may depend on it.