How to prepare for the worst so that you can focus on the best
I stood at the intersection, waiting for the little green man to tell me it was safe to cross, even though I couldn’t see a car for miles. I’m from Africa, where rules are treated as mild suggestions, so i don’t trust others to obey them. If you ever walk anywhere with me, know that I will refuse to jaywalk or cross on anything but green, and I still look right and left first.
Anyway, back to my story. The little man turned green, and after my customary checks, I began to cross. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw movement and turned. A car was barreling towards the intersection against the light. I leapt backward, pulling another pedestrian with me out of the path.
The driver never slowed, didn’t give a wave of apology, and didn't in any way acknowledge how close she had come to hitting us. The other pedestrian and I stood looking at each other, shaken and sharing an adrenaline-fueled giggle and shake of the head.
But what if I hadn’t seen the car? What if it had hit me? Would I have broken bones? Been hospitalized? Worse?
We survive near misses all the time, which we move on from and forget about after we’ve updated our FB status. But what if?
How prepared is your business for you to be taken out of action for a day?
Most successful entrepreneurs have invested a great deal of time, money, and effort into their businesses, but have not considered how they would protect it from the car accident or crisis lurking around the corner.
We associate the word crisis with negative events, and we don't like to think about them. We keep the can of worms firmly closed, cross our fingers, and hope for the best.
But in reality, many events are not intrinsically good or bad. They are neutral, and the good or bad we assign to them comes instead from our response, the decisions we make, and the action we take.
Consider a sudden rainstorm. For me, working indoors in my PJs it’s a non-event. I am not impacted by it, I don't need to do anything different, and it passes. If I was a bride about to walk down the aisle at a garden wedding with no shelter nearby, I’d probably be emotional and panicked and consider it a disaster.
Again, this is a “bad” event, but what if we considered a traditionally “good” business event, like a surge of traffic to a website? Say you got a mention in a huge blog, or a video of yours went viral.
Traffic is the holy grail of small online businesses, so it’s a “good” event for the business whose site is ready for that surge. But if you can’t handle that traffic, not only will your website crash, but you will also lose your chance forever with most of the people who clicked on a dead link.
If our response determines whether an event is good, bad, or a crisis, then the right decision at the outset is vital. It can save time, money, energy, and even our businesses down the line, so it is crucial to protect our decision-making ability in a high stress situation..
We protect ourselves all the time: we brake when someone cuts us off, we check the weather before we leave the house, we put our hands out if we trip. We don’t notice that we're making these decisions because they have become instinctive over our lifetime as humans, but we’re still developing a protective instinct for our businesses, so we need to compensate with a plan.
Most people think of crisis planning as an overwhelming task of outlining every eventuality and making a decision tree that lists infinite outcomes to those eventualities, but it is much simpler than that.
A crisis plan is:
- An action plan to get you out of paralysis and into response mode, because response determines if we have a good or bad outcome;
- The first steps that you need to take during a given set of circumstances;
- A document detailing who will take those steps, because you do not have time in a crisis to discuss (argue) about who is going to do what.
But if a crisis plan doesn’t cover the full detailed response or the spectrum of crises, how does it help?
A crisis plan settles the small decisions, allowing you to save your mental capacity for bigger calls down the line. If the problem persists over time or it grows (and merges with other crises), you need to protect your ability to process information and make decisions in a high-stress environment.
It also removes emotional or panicked decision making. In a crisis, our reptilian brain takes over and moves us into fight or flight. Our brain starts seeking out the quickest route to safety for us, but not necessarily for our businesses. It is considering immediate consequences and not the big picture, so we don’t make well-reasoned decisions.
Or even worse, we might move into freeze mode, and simply stay paralyzed when we need to be acting swiftly.
How do you begin to build a plan?
Let’s imagine that tomorrow for any reason — an accident, a stomach bug, or an amazing opportunity — you are not going to go to work. What would you do?
First, you would check your calendar. You would reschedule, delegate, or cancel everything.
Then you’d see what deadlines you had for the day, and similarly extend them or delegate them to others.
And you’d need to let all the affected people, including your clients or team, know what was happening and who would be stepping in to replace you.
So you have effectively covered your obligations for tomorrow. But what about that unexpected day coming three weeks from Wednesday?
The crisis plan involves the same process, but you need to think more broadly in terms of the type of appointments and deliverables you might have, how and what you would need to communicate, and who would need to do all these tasks.
A crisis plan will leave you confident that on any given day you won’t have a client waiting for you on Zoom, or hitting refresh on their emails, expecting that attachment you were meant to send.
In crises, one key item, the email auto-responder or out-of-office message, is often an afterthought. It is the key to preventing a second crisis from brewing and overlapping with the current one.
Congratulations! You’ve got your plan in place! And now that you’re ready for an unexpected day off that planned vacay day should be easy peasy!!
First, you need to think about how you’ll document and store the plan. And because we tend to over-complicate this process too, I’ve built a simple template to cover all the elements discussed here neatly in one page.
Second, if you have anyone in the “who” column other than yourself, you need to share it with them, to get their input and buy-in.
If it’s an all-me column, that is fine and is not a reason to panic — your options for action may be more limited, but it is still better to be prepared. Remember: copying and pasting an email from your phone is way easier and quicker than trying to decide what needs to happen when you’re feeling ill, have to tend to a sick loved one, wind up in urgent care, or just want to take a last-minute trip.
You’re already better prepare than most.
Simply having thought about how you would handle an unexpected absence has you steps ahead of most entrepreneurs. I know making up a plan isn't always the most fun you could be having, but weigh it against the relief you'll feel knowing your business is okay as you deal with an unexpected accident, health concern, or other crisis.
More importantly, weigh up this quick exercise against your ability to drop everything and go on an adventure with the kids, date night with your partner, or the spa with your friends.