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Plan beats no plan

Reading the Evening Standard on the tube during the rush hour at the height of summer is not a relaxing pastime. The mercury must be busting through 35c, everyone is hot, sweaty and irritable and your newspaper is crushed up against some fellow commuter’s back. But catching a glimpse of the opening paragraph of yesterday’s leading article struck a chord.

“A good dictum in a crisis is that a “plan beats no plan”. Coined by the US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner during the banking crash, it captures the age-old rule that people need leadership, and that any sense of direction is better than no direction at all.”

Geithner is worth listening to as few people have grappled with as many financial crises as the man who was President of the Federal Reserve of New York when the banking crisis struck in 2007. He played a key role in the Fed’s response to the Bear Stearns and AIG bailouts and the decision to let Lehman Brothers disappear into the dustbin of corporate history. He was also President Obama’s Treasury Secretary.

So, if Mr Geithner says, ‘plan is better than no plan’ we would be wise to listen up.

Full disclosure: At Crisis Solutions, we write crisis management and business continuity plans so it is hardly surprising that this quote caught my eye as I clung for dear life to the overhead rail, sweat dripping into my eyes.

Almost inevitably the newspaper leader went on to castigate the government for having no plan but as we avoid politics like cats avoid cucumbers we won’t be following that line of argument.

But it did get me thinking two things; why don’t people plan and is having a bad plan better than having no plan at all?

Scrutiny

When a company finds itself caught in the jaws of a crisis there will be a huge level of interest as to how it acquits itself. Stakeholders will all be asking the question: “How does this affect me?”

The media will want to see if there’s a story in it for them. Is there blame, incompetence? Are there heroes or villains?

This scrutiny is likely to have two separate – but overlapping – elements.

  • External scrutiny will come from organisational stakeholders; investors, customers, clients, regulators and possibly the police. To which must be added the media in all its forms.
  • Then there will be considerable internal scrutiny as to how the organisation is managing the crisis. This will come largely from staff and their families.

In a nutshell, what all these groups want is reassurance that there is a structure in place, a plan, which will provide an effective response.

Why don’t people plan?

So why don’t people plan? Some seem to prefer to ‘wing it’, to improvise and react to events. But as the tired, old crisis management saw goes: fail to plan; plan to fail. You muddle along at your peril.

Some leaders seem to fear plans because they hold the owner to account. By ‘buying-in’ to a plan, the thinking goes, you commit to take certain actions by a certain time. In other words, a plan has a pass/fail element which makes some wary. It is almost as if they are thinking; without a plan, I can’t be held accountable. This is a massive misconception as you can and you will be held accountable whether you have a plan or not. In fact, if you are found not to have a plan, so much the worse for you.

Some don’t plan or never complete a plan because they are perfectionists. In their eyes, no plan is ever good enough with the result that no plan is ever deployed. This has some similarities with what we call ‘analysis paralysis’. People who continue to gather information during a crisis but never feel they have enough information to take a decision. An absence of decision-making has the ability by itself to turn an incident in to a crisis. Crisis management isn’t about perfection; it’s about pragmatism.

Falling from that comes the inevitable question; is a bad plan better than having no plan at all? To which I would answer yes, any plan is better than a blank canvas. A poor plan can be adapted, updated and improved. In truth, any plan however good will always need monitoring, changing and improving. Plan always beats no plan.

All of which made me realise I’m in desperate need of a plan to stop travelling on the tube during rush hour in July.