Repair the roof while the sun is shining

Back in his 1962 State Of The Union Address, JFK noted that “the best time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining.” He was making the point that the US needed to make harder economic decisions while the economy was strong rather than trying to implement cuts and structural changes during a downturn.

However, this idea extends well beyond economics and is something we should apply whenever there is a difficult decision to make. There will be times where something truly unexpected crops up and we don’t have much chance to plan beforehand but, in most situations, we can plan ahead. The critical thing is that hard decisions are much easier to tackle when you aren’t already in the middle of a stressful situation.

When I first left the Army, I spent most of my time working in places where civil unrest and instability was a big concern. Therefore, a large part of my job was to develop evacuation plans for organizations working in these places. Building evacuation plans – working out how to move a large number of people out of harm’s way where there are multiple variables and unknowns – is one of my favorite assignments.

These are big, meaty planning problems but a lot of the parameters are known and fixed so it becomes a time and space exercise which is something I enjoy. Plus I’ve had numerous friends and family members pulled out of tight spots over the years, so I also appreciate the value of a good evacuation plan at a personal level.

However, one part of the process that was always painful was working out who was eligible for evacuation. At first, identifying eligible persons (EPs) seems straightforward. Ask an organization ‘who do you have a responsibility to evacuate?‘ and the first answer is pretty clear: their staff.

But what about families? What about a family where a foreigner married a local and they have children. Or the expatriate that’s lived there for 20 years. Where is ‘home’ for her? Is the foreign national you employed in-country an expatriate or a local hire? And if you move expatriate staff back to their country of nationality, do you also have a responsibility to move local staff somewhere safer in the region?

And let’s not even get started on pets.

These conversations are clearly very complicated. You have to balance a mix of contract law, duty of care, immigration law, and simply trying to do the right thing for your people. However, these discussions are also very stressful when it becomes clear that some of your senior staff would be staying and some would be leaving. It can also look like the expatriate (white) staff is going to leave the local (non-white) employees behind which adds another layer of complexity.

In short, there is no easy way to have these conversations, and these are always hard. (There’s also no right answer to some of these questions, but that’s another post in itself.)

It is immeasurably easier to have these discussions before an evacuation is taking place. However, time and time again, this part of the process was deferred because it was too difficult: no one wanted to commit to making hard decisions.

Shelving the decision like this caused three significant issues.

First, the final determination of who and who wasn’t an EP was now going to be made during the actual evacuation. This was going to make decision-making several orders of magnitude more complicated and also slow down the evacuation itself while we worked out who would go and who should stay.

Second, delaying the decision meant that no one could plan. I couldn’t plan the evacuation in detail as I didn’t have a firm number of people to plan for. Similarly, the people who were in limbo concerning their EP status – like any locally hired expatriate staff – were unsure of what to do.

Third, we had started talking about the possibility of evacuation but hadn’t resolved the vital issue of who would and would not be evacuated. This created a great deal of uncertainty and subsequently sapped employee morale, particularly with local staff.

Again, there is no easy way to make decisions around EP status. Similarly, JFK knew that there is no easy way to cut government spending. But there’s also no easy way to shutter part of a business. Or instigate pay cuts across a workforce. Or get an aging parent to write a living will.

However, big decisions can be simplified significantly if the deliberations take place when the critical issue isn’t staring you in the face. If you fix the roof while the sun is shining.

So when you know that there are hard choices ahead, deal with them as early as possible when things are relatively calm and the time pressure and stress are reduced. And even if you don’t have a specific issue that’s looming, play ‘what if’: think about what might happen and how you could address potential problems.

But whatever you do, don’t wait until the rain is coming in to fix your roof.

Image by Annie Spratt on

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