Never forget the importance of asking “what if?”

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The difference between making good or bad judgments in crises often depends on the level of contingency planning. During strategic planning sessions, leaders should ask “what if,” play out different scenarios and have a basic plan for emergencies.

Contingency plans are effectively instruction sets for future decisions. They provide information in a time of crisis, which is much better than starting from scratch. And history teaches us that how an organization responds to a crisis can enhance or seriously harm its reputation.

Johnson & Johnson had a scare in 1982 when a malicious person poisoned bottles of Tylenol medication. The company responded by temporarily pulling all their products off the shelf and began informing the public through media channels. The American public quickly forgave the company and respected their crisis strategy, which saved the product line.

More recently, the Veterans Administration was involved in a scandal when they were caught tampering with patient wait times to make them look more favorable. Many critics argue the VA’s crisis management strategy has been less than admirable, and public opinion has yet to recover.

The organization seemed to have no plan at all for responding to allegations that it was masking patients’ real wait times, and that dozens of service men and women died awaiting care.

Poor decisions made during this crisis resulted in the top two VA officials being terminated and the VA being subjected to investigations from the VA Inspector General and the U.S. Department of Justice

Of course you can’t plan for every contingency, but some base plans are suitable for many situations. Contingency planning is an area worth learning about from the military’s playbook. They do a good job of developing contingencies because many lives depend on the creation and quality of these plans.

When I was a commander in Iraq, I took it upon myself to review contingency plans (CONPLANs) for my command and for the lead command to which I was assigned. One day when I was “kicking the tires and checking under the hood,” I noticed that the port I was in charge of contained some assets that would be quite vulnerable and do considerable damage if they were targeted by air strike or a creative terrorist with an improvised explosive device.

I felt a contingency was important for a couple of reasons. First, the port was one of the most important logistical nodes in the theater and was the key to most shipments of materials and supplies for the Iraqi theater.

Second, the port was surrounded on one side by massive tanks of chlorine, and on the other side was surrounded by massive oil tanks from the oil fields of the Arabian Peninsula. Any attack on either one of these could destroy a tremendous amount of important real estate.

Who knew what could happen if the two were to combine? I was surprised to discover that there was no CONPLAN for this scenario, so I asserted myself to ensure that those responsible developed a good one to address this potential disastrous event. To this day, that particular CONPLAN is still in the archives, and will undoubtedly help in case of disaster.

During contingency planning sessions, you should analyze the full range of potential situations that surround your business. It pays to be creative, and the military often does this by assigning a “red team” that represents an enemy.

In the corporate world, you can follow suit by assigning a team of creative people to think of different scenarios for which you need to plan.

You must decide both what you anticipate will happen when future challenges arise, and also who among your operational leaders it best suited to handle the situation. Once you know who that leader is, have that person carefully review the plan to ensure you have a winning response if the situation occurs and so they know the plan thoroughly. It is important to insist on high-quality planning because decisions made now can affect you greatly in a crisis down the road.

Operational leaders should take charge of developing these crisis action plans and know that they will have responsibility for planning and executing such plans if and when they are needed. It is also a good idea to review these plans periodically to make sure they’re up to date and reflect knowledge of any new situations and variables.

Finally, be sure to update the plans while the would-be operational leader assigned to drive a crisis response is still within your organization, and renew the review process when there are changes in leadership.

This excerpt is from “The Diamond Process, How to Fix Your Organization and Effectively Lead People,” by U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Michael J. Diamond (retired) and his son, Capt. Christopher R. Harding, published in April. For more information, visit DiamondStrategyGroup.com.

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