One Monday in 2013, my husband and I spent the night in our car. Shortly after midnight, on our way home from playing hockey (this is a new sport for us, and great fun), we were amazed to encounter a huge traffic jam on Atlanta’s I-285. As we slowed to a stop, we saw a plume of fire as big as a house rising from a burning tractor-trailer a third of a mile ahead. Scenes from disaster movies looped in my head, and we talked about what to do if things got worse.
We passed the first hour reading books on our iPhones, then slept intermittently while waiting for the emergency workers to put out the fire and clear the wreckage. Someone from a nearby car borrowed our jumper cables, and Rob got out from time to time to walk ahead to see how things were progressing. We started the car periodically to warm up.
This incident reminded me how important being prepared can be. I was thankful to have a warm coat and sensible shoes but thought about a few things that we should keep in the car in the future. Snacks, water, a first-aid kit, at least a third of a tank of gas.
I thought, too, about business preparedness. Business people tend to enjoy planning for good things, like new products, revenue growth and hiring. It’s worth taking the time to prepare for unpleasant surprises as well, since you can tremendously improve your outcomes with a little planning.
Here are a few examples:
- What would you do if competitors suddenly introduced a much cheaper alternative to your core offering? Does your R&D pipeline include products to combat this type of threat?
- How are you monitoring the satisfaction and loyalty of your most profitable customers? Do you have plans in place to react quickly should you see signs of a possible defection? Have you worked creatively with customers to continuously improve the value you provide?
- What will you do if a key supplier fails? Have backup sources been lined up? <– Click to Tweet
- What happens if you lose a key employee? Do you have a solid succession plan, and are your business processes working effectively, regardless of who’s in the driver’s seat?
- Do you have processes in place to respond quickly when faced with a totally unexpected and strategic business challenge?
You can easily improve your organization’s ability to deal with surprises by brainstorming possible scenarios, prioritizing them, and asking your best managers what steps they would take to respond. Performing this “mental rehearsal” doesn’t take much time and has great benefit. It will help you identify the most important preventative measures to take. And, when the unexpected occurs, your team will interpret events more rationally and will move faster to take action.
Back to my story about our night on the interstate: At 6:45 a.m., after we had waited over six hours on a cold, dark highway, the authorities opened one lane, allowing cars to start slowly filing past the smoldering skeleton of the semi, which, it turns out, had been filled with highly flammable margarine. It had been a giant, unstoppable grease fire.
We waited while the driver in the car ahead of us woke up, started his car, and began to move. We arrived home at 7:00 a.m., just before our teenagers woke up to get ready for school.
After school, I talked with them about preparedness. I also put some supplies in my car for the next emergency. Our experience spending a night on the interstate sparked my thoughts about preparedness, but you shouldn’t have to sleep in your car to learn this.
How do you ensure that your organization is prepared to deal with unexpected surprises?