Why your contingency plans will fail

You need to fix a fatal assumption

Most organizations and groups have contingency plans in place for when things go wrong. So do many families and individuals. They’ve spent the time thinking about what to do if someone gets sick, a product launch fails, a vehicle crashes, or there’s a fire.

The problem is that most of these plans will fail because they’re based on a completely false and unrealistic assumption.

This assumption is so fundamental to the plan, that the whole thing is systemically weak and has little to no chance of succeeding.

So what’s the flaw?

There’s a rose-tinted, optimist spin on everything and the planners assumed that nothing would go wrong when it came time to execute the plan.

  • All the key people they need would be available.
  • All the communications systems required would be working
  • Everyone would know what to do (despite not having been briefed on the plan)
  • There would be lots of time to make decisions
  • All the equipment and resources required were going to be available and working
  • They’d have no problem getting cash in a hurry

Sometimes there would be utterly unrealistic expectation built-in, which I nicknamed the unicorn-powered helicopter: it would solve all your problems on paper but would never happen in reality.

Here’s the problem with these assumptions: you’re already dealing with an emergency or crisis. By definition, things are already going badly wrong. So why assume that the things you most depend on will be going right?

Key decision-makers will be unavailable; critical equipment will go down and people won’t have read the plan. The unicorns don’t show up.

Don’t get me wrong. Personally, I’m an optimist: I think things will work out in the end, the good guys will triumph, and tomorrow will be a better day. Professionally, however, I’m a pessimist. I think about what can go wrong, why and how we could fail, and assume that things won’t work out the way we’d planned.

However, time and time again, in organizations of all sizes and maturity, I’ve come across plans where success hinges on one critical component, a single piece of equipment, one person, or the opposition screwing up. Or where they assume everything will go like clockwork.

Recognizing the audacity and difficulty of making the movie Avatar, Director James Cameron had crew shirts made which read
Hope is not a strategy
Luck is not a factor
Fear is not an option
That’s not a bad mantra to follow when you’re developing contingency plans.

Don’t assume that everything will go like clockwork. And remember, plans don’t just work by themselves: you need to make them work. Consequently, the more realistic the plan is, the more redundancy you have, and the greater the flexibility, the more chance you have of success.

But if you assume that everything will go right in a situation which, by definition, is already going wrong, you’ll fail.

Plan as a pessimist but execute as an optimist. And ditch those unicorns.

Photo by James Lee on Unsplash

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