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The Future is Plural: Why Most Contingency Plans are Obsolete

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By LaMesha Craft
August 10, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has shed a flood light on inadequate or non-existent contingency plans across many sectors of government and industry. It did not take long for most of the workforce (that was not furloughed or rendered unemployed) to realize our ability to communicate and collaborate effectively had been challenged. Some employees grew frustrated with computer networks that were never built to support mass and continuous use. Others found themselves waiting with bated breath as senior leaders spent hours (if not days) to develop a plan … then took another week or two to implement it.

The large majority has been standing in solidarity as we come to grips with a “new normal” during this pandemic. However, the hard truth is that simply standing in solidarity and lamenting, “We are all in this together,” is not synonymous with preparedness. After you are finished standing in solidarity with your employees and the members of your community then perhaps you can run towards the unknowns of the future.

We all have received a pass regarding our initial reactions to the pandemic. However, your employees, your customers and your constituents are watching. They can accept that pandemics are often unexpected. But, as public administrators, project managers and leaders we owe ourselves a critical reflection period to scrutinize our outdated and unimaginative so-called contingency plans. These are the same plans that have proven ineffective and the same plans that we have excused with the notion we are doing the best we can.

Whether we are ready to acknowledge it or not, we are bearing witness to postnormal times.

What is Postnormal Times?

In the simplest terms, postnormal times is the, “In-between period where old orthodoxies are dying, new ones have yet to be born and very few things seem to make sense.” It is a globalized world that is full of contradictions and chaotic events, where social media has the ability to mobilize a social movement or promote ignorance (for example) … sometimes in the same millisecond … in a manner where both (the movement and the ignorance) can become an instrument of power.

Get Comfortably Uncomfortable

In a previous role, I created real-world scenarios in support of operations-based exercises. So, I speak with a degree of confidence when I convey the importance of pushing the bounds of propriety to instill rigor and build confidence in systems and processes. When I suggested the scenario included a large-scale attack against a major port of entry, some trainers howled “Uh, Chief … we can’t do that … it’ll kill the exercise.” To which I retorted, “Is it your position that losing 70% of port operations is not realistic?” “No,” one of them begrudgingly answered, “It’s clearly not unrealistic … but it’ll have ripple effects on other parts of the exercise.” Never one to miss an opportunity to insert a rhetorical question, I probed, “So, in other words … such an event will enable various directorates to communicate across cubicles, coordinate efforts and collaborate to identify a solution?” Once the awkward silence passed, the trainers acknowledged the importance of challenging the participants—because the real-world would be equally, if not more, demanding.

Change the Perspective, Change the Outcome

It is important to acknowledge that some organizations have begun the planning process. However, before we roll out the tabletop exercises, perhaps what we really need to do is to push back from the table and alter our perspective. Perhaps we have relied too heavily on plans that are rife with unspoken assumptions, many of which are WRONG because we have failed to account for the subtle shifts that have occurred over the last few years in our organizations and throughout society. Let’s assume that you like the view at your table, and you do not want to push back. Well, then at the very least, you should consider inviting the brilliant and creative minds of the disruptors in your organization to the table. Rather than “putting a pin” in those unpopular ideas and suggestions, it is time to lead with some intellectual humility and accept that you do not have answers to the very good (albeit unorthodox) questions.

Author: LaMesha “MeMe” Craft, Ph.D., is a faculty member at the National Intelligence University and an adjunct professor at Tiffin University. Her research interests include community resilience, disaster risk reduction, leadership, impacts of disruptive technology, alternative futures, and postnormal times. She may be reached at [email protected] or @DrLCraft20

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