I recently had the occasion to discuss emergency preparedness with senior members of the leadership team for a large non-profit organization. This organization, with thousands of employees and multiple buildings and assorted properties, did not have an up-to-date and meaningful emergency preparedness plan, but recognized the need and importance of creating one. We discussed the basic framework for developing a comprehensive emergency preparedness plan and some of the multiple challenges of creating a viable and effective plan tailored to the specific needs of the organization. During this conversation one member asked me what I thought the biggest challenge was in creating and implementing an emergency preparedness plan.
Emergency preparedness plans come in all shapes and sizes. Some are “all hazards” plans involving emergency response protocols and tactical plans, business continuity plans, and continuity of operation plans, while other plans are much more limited and focused. Regardless of the scope and focus of the plan, those who have been involved in emergency preparedness planning know that the planning process can be quite involved and includes multifarious elements like establishing policy and selecting a planning team, establishing an organizational structure with a clearly defined chain of command and designated roles and responsibilities, identifying hazards and conducting hazard analysis, risk assessment, capability assessment, training drills & exercises, and plan maintenance.
All of these elements (and many more) are vitally important. But from my experience in creating and implementing emergency preparedness plans, I have learned that the biggest challenge is not simply creating the plan itself, but inculcating the emergency plan into the fabric of the workplace. This means that everyone in the organization - everyone from the janitor to the CEO must know what their roll in the plan is and they must take it seriously – day in and day out. Without this type of “buy-in” an emergency preparedness plan ends up being just a fancy document gathering dust on some manager’s shelf.
Support from Top Management is Essential
Regardless of whether your company or organization is large or small, a for profit company or a non-profit organization, run by a CEO, President, Board of Directors, or someone with some other title, the success of any emergency plan starts first and foremost with the unequivocal public support of top management. Whether it is in the form of a Mission Statement, Corporate Directive, or some other official communiqué, a well articulated statement from the highest ranking member of management stressing the purpose and importance of the emergency preparedness plan and indicating that it will involve and impact everyone in the organization, gives everyone in the organization a clear sense of direction and demonstrates the organization’s commitment to the plan. Strong and continued public displays of support from top management builds the groundwork for cohesiveness in actions and is the vital first step in garnering widespread support from everyone in the organization. Without this top level support, inculcating the plan into the day-to-day activities of all employees is simply impossible.
Early and Continual Stakeholder Involvement is Vital
As those involved in emergency planning can attest, almost everyone in an organization acknowledges a need to have a plan to deal with emergencies, but interest in emergency planning and plan maintenance often wanes with time. Emergency planning isn’t “exciting” and many people find it hard to keep focused when they are planning for something that may never happen. All too often emergency plans are created in isolation by security directors or management staff with very little meaningful input from those in the organization who actually do the everyday work. My recommendation to anyone developing an emergency preparedness plan is regardless of whether you use Gannt charts, SMART goals, Event Chain Methodology, or some other type of project management methodology, start inculcating the emergency plan into the organization from the very beginning.
Meaningful engagement of all “stakeholders” at the earliest possible stage in the planning process is central to the success of any emergency plan as it provides an opportunity to influence perceptions and sends a positive and powerful message about the importance of the project. Loosely defined, a stakeholder is any person, group, or organization, who can affect or be affected by the plan. In my view the largest group of stakeholders – and perhaps the most important stakeholders, are the employees who come to work each day and quietly go about doing their jobs.
Sounds great, but how do you involve all stakeholders in the planning process? A surfeit of academic literature has been written on this subject and one can even study the subject at colleges and universities around the world. But for the typical emergency preparedness plan it does not have to be complicated. In short, stakeholder participation must be managed as part of an overall strategy that starts with stakeholder identification and analysis.
Stakeholder Identification and Analysis
Stakeholder identification quite simply involves an analytical process of identifying who the stakeholders are. It asks the not always simple question of who has a ‘stake’ or an interest in the plan. There are various methods of identifying stakeholders. Brain storming, focus groups, surveys, flow charts and interest circles, etc. have all been successfully used by emergency preparedness planners and there is even software on the market that can assist in identifying and classifying stakeholders. Regardless of whether you use a formal structured process with charts and sophisticated computer programs or a more informal process; you need to make a determination on an individual stakeholder’s level of participation. Will their role be one of an advisor, subject matter expert, or something else?
A thorough discussion of the stakeholder identification and classification process in emergency preparedness planning is beyond the scope of this article; but whatever process is used it must be done in a logical and systematic manner to ensure that vital stakeholders are not overlooked. After all vital stakeholders are identified; their interests and the potential support they can provide must be analyzed. A comprehensive stakeholder analysis process provides a good platform for creative ideas to surface and facilitates information sharing. It is also a good way to identify the relationships between stakeholders and identify which relationships may have a positive or negative impact on the planning process. Mind mapping software, Venn diagrams, stakeholder analysis grids, or similar visual graphical network diagramming can be useful in identifying and assessing the influence and level of impact a stakeholder is capable of providing.
The elements of developing and implementing an effective emergency preparedness plan go far beyond stakeholder identification and analysis and it was not my intent to give readers a primer on emergency project management. Rather, my intent was to convey one major point to those involved in emergency preparedness planning: If you want your plan to be more than a thick document gathering dust on a shelf, you must have a well thought out and well organized planning process and you must take steps to systematically and continually infuse emergency preparedness throughout the organization.
The first step in this process requires the sincere and genuine involvement of all vital stakeholders from the very beginning of the planning process. Additionally, a structure and process that maintains their involvement throughout the entire planning process must be established. This structure needs to do more than just allow participation – it needs to actively encourage stakeholders to have continual and meaningful participation in plan implementation and maintenance.
From my experience the largest group of stakeholders – and perhaps the most vital stakeholders, are the employees who come to work each day and quietly go about doing their jobs. Always remember this and you will be on the right track.