Simulate the worst to be ready for the worst


    You’ve crafted a fine business continuity plan for your business, one that ensures that should your organization’s feet be held to the fire, they won’t burn. You’ve followed all the best practices to a T, and thought of all contingencies. Or have you?

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    Unless you’ve tested your ability to respond to a natural disaster or other business-threatening occurrence, do you really know how your plan, your process, and your people will respond when put to the real-life test?

    Fortunately, there are a number of ways to test how your business will fare should the unthinkable become the current situation.

    Starting small

    The baby steps in business continuity planning are “tabletop exercises” so called because they generally consist of imagining a specific scenario with a handful of people – either members of one specific team responsible for the response to that scenario, or with representatives of a few teams within the organization that will be called upon for a broader scenario. Think of it as a roleplaying game without the 40-sided dice, where the future of your company is on the line.

    It’s 4:00 A.M. and the fire alarm has been triggered at a key facility. And…… go!

    Members of the test talk through the scenario and measure how the plan fared.

    This is a great way to get started on making sure your business is ready to respond should things go wrong, and yet make sure everyone still gets to hit the local watering hole for a celebratory beverage when the day is done.

    Getting more complex

    Okay, so things worked out well in that scenario. But not every situation is going to be quite so compartmentalized and manageable. For your next test, it’s time to scale things up a little bit. This time, there are more people involved – perhaps people in different locations, differently affected by the hypothetically-unfolding situations. If role-playing in the previous situation was like a game of Dungeons and Dragons, now it’s time to make it a little bit more like paintball. The “bullets” may not be real, but there are certainly more concrete consequences for getting hit now. It’s time to start making the scenario – and everything around it – more realistic and as immersive as possible. And throw a few curveballs at the team along the way, because in a real disaster, odds are good that whatever hits the fan will not be evenly distributed.

    The tendency is to test your plan with the best people around. Instead, pull in some less-than-ideal staff members and see how your plan holds up, because there’s a decent chance that under some disaster scenarios, you’ll find yourself trying to talk Joe from Marketing who lives five minutes from the office through some reasonably technical tasks to get the company back up and running, simply because Joe was on the scene half an hour before anyone else could be.

    And of course, who’s to say that some key third-party services will be accessible if things go bad? Sure, maybe you’re not testing the resiliency of your phone system with this particular test. But maybe the phone system also just happens to be out as part of your makeshift disaster. Include it just to test the team’s ability to problem solve – a quality that will surely be tested should just about any disaster scenario play out for real.

    The types of scenarios may play out over a few hours, but may also extend over several days to assess the plan’s (and your team’s) ability to hold up over those pesky disasters that just don’t want to go away. It all depends on how ready you want your organization to be, and conversely, how unpopular you, as the person planning the testing scenario, want to be.

    Going deep

    That second level of testing will do a pretty good job of simulating a disaster and testing the ability of your business to survive. But sometimes, you really have to know how things are going to go when things go bad.

    This is likely a big test, involving a lot of moving parts from various departments. Have pre-determined start and stop times, and within that time frame, include a duration and path of events that is unknown to most participants. And if in the previous tests you threw curveballs, now it’s time to start throwing some knuckleballs. Maybe a spitball or two, too. Because business-threatening disasters are notorious for not playing fair.

    It’s time to turn the realism up to 11. If you were talking through the pre-flight safety video before, now it’s time to start putting on air masks and sending people down the slide. Maybe this time, a location is actually evacuated. Maybe you spin up your disaster recovery site for real.

    No pain, no gain

    Putting your team in some of these situations is tough, but then are so are major business-threatening disasters. And by testing some of the scenarios that may truly test both your plan and your people, you’ll be putting your organization in the best-possible situation to survive the kind of event that can be the literal make-or-break point for any business.

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    Robert Dutt
    Robert Dutt has been covering the Canadian IT industry, with a close focus on SMB and the solution providers that serve them, for almost twenty years.