Thursday, November 8, 2012

Recovering from Company Disasters



As people up and down the east coast struggle with the effects of yet another storm, I started thinking about how companies respond when faced with severe problems. A key question that comes to mind:

Is disaster response a lot easier than disaster recovery?

The recent headlines about the areas hit by Hurricane Sandy are no longer about the devastation. They now talk about how long it is taking to relieve the suffering left in the hurricane’s wake. Sometimes the process of getting people back on track is a lot harder than managing the original disaster.

In my career I have been called on several times to do organizational “disaster recovery.” I worked with a firm for several years helping them turnaround difficult acquisitions. I recall one company in particular where the employees, the managers and the customers were so dysfunctional that it was a wonder that any work got done at all. I vividly remember the HR Director meeting with me and several other senior executives from the acquiring company. With a serious look on his face (and I think a sense of empathy for my plight) he turned to me and said: “Think of it this way Jerry, at least you have a lot of room for improvement.”

He was right. We saw the disaster as a chance to make things, not just better, but truly great.

The employees, managers and customers (and suppliers) were starving for relief.

As with all disasters, the first step is to stem the bleeding. Disaster recovery really is a lot like emergency room triage. You have to relieve those things that cause the most suffering first. In the case of the victims of Sandy, it is things such as housing, electricity, clean water, heat, safety. When a company is in disaster recovery it is usually about trust, poor communications, and dysfunctional processes. If you can plug a few of the worst holes, you can give yourself time to work on the foundation that will completely turn the situation around.

That is the key to recovering from any kind of disaster: First make sure the people’s biggest needs are met and then move on to creating bigger changes. Thankfully I have never had to deal with the level of suffering that a hurricane can create. But my experience with the very real suffering a poorly run organization creates suggests that people who have experienced it are ready and eager for something better. They just need someone to take charge (and remember there are people involved).