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Things we can learn from disaster movies

Kathy Schneider, CMO of data centre and IT resilience company Sungard Availability Services says disaster movies somehow suspend our disbelief, generate excitement and anticipation, and deliver regular box office dividends. In fact, Titanic is still the second most successful move of all time more than 20 years after it was released. From The Towering Inferno, to Jurassic World, and the hotly anticipated Godzilla: King of the Monsters later this year, disaster films have gripped people across the globe, feeding our curiosity about what could happen and how might we respond.

It’s far more fun than the day-to-day predictable rhythm of life, right? Although the situations these movies portray are extremes, how the characters respond to them provide a surprising source of important lessons for businesses and how they can prepare for and cope with their own crises.

For example, disaster films often portray the protagonists as over-confident. Jaws is an extreme example of what happens when you don’t take the time to really understand the risks to yourself and others around you and assume the problem ‘isn’t that bad’.

Elsewhere, poor communication causes minor issues to spiral out of control. In Jurassic Park, a lack of communication meant a simple power outage caused a chain reaction of chaos. Only a select few were aware of particularly high-risk areas and their vulnerabilities – but didn’t communicate it properly to the rest their team and the tourists who had a right to know. While a power outage for a business wouldn’t result in possibly being eaten by a dinosaur, the impact that it can have is significant nonetheless. It’s worrying therefore that only 39% of businesses have a continuity plan in place in case of a power outage which is one of the greatest causes of business disruption.

Finally, a lack of preparation is a theme that runs through almost all films in this genre. The threat from radio-active monsters portrayed in the upcoming Godzilla: King of the Monsters is probably a disaster that businesses don’t have to plan for. However, the lesson is that unexpected dangers can occur. They catch people and businesses unaware and, no matter how unlikely you think your business’ worst-case scenario may be, you need to prepare. And preparing includes testing your plans.

Beyond the drama and special effects on the big screen, each disaster has the potential to cost businesses millions of pounds a year. But luckily there are some valuable lessons that we can apply from these films to the not-so-blockbuster business world.

Don’t be over-confident

You are going to need a bigger boat. This famous line echoes one theme we see across the disaster film genre – over-confidence that results in lack of preparedness. In Jaws, an overconfident fisherman and his mis-matched team set out to find the shark but clearly weren’t equipped for dangers ahead, with shoddy equipment and in a boat too frail for the mission. Despite his lack of preparedness, he still insisted on going out into the ocean to find the shark, resulting in the fatal loss of his crewmate and boat.

The first thing any business should do when analysing its resiliency and business continuity plans is to perform a thorough risk assessment. It might be tempting to rely on the confidence you have in your team but being over-confident can lead to mis-judgements: the time you spend on planning and evaluating risk will pay dividends further down the line. Consider bringing in outside expertise to help identify priority areas that need focus – the threat might not be a big as great white sharks but could be equally harming. And like in the movie, if you don’t even know how big the shark is in the first place, there is simply no way you can plan accordingly.

Communication is key

Another trend we see across disaster films such as Jaws and Jurassic Park is a catastrophic lack of communication – within teams and with the outside world. In Jurassic Park, when the power was cut, what started as a small issue suddenly became much bigger. In the same way, business leaders need to make sure everyone is aware of their role and that information is able to be communicated across the organisation in case of a disaster.

Regardless of the size and scale of the issue at hand, each disruption has an impact on the business, and a knock-on effect on operational processes and customer service. During an outage, leaders need to be fully prepared in how and when they communicate to their customers. It is critical to empathise with customers and be honest about what you’re doing to solve the issue from their perspective. In order to manage the impact on customers, businesses need to understand the effects that a business disruption has on them. Customers probably won’t be interested in what you’re doing to get the IT systems back up and running, they’ll want to hear how you’re reducing the impact on them; for example, if you’re an airline, offering alternative routes, or even providing water and supplies for passengers grounded at the airport. Clear communication of what the situation is and efforts to resolve it are important especially since those impacted often use social media to vent frustration.

Furthermore, leaders need to make sure employees are aware of their responsibilities in the event of a disaster and that lines of communication are clear and well established. They are an important element when it comes to business continuity disasters, so make sure employees have the right skills to identify and respond to issues and seek outside help to find weak spots and particular expertise if necessary. What’s more, you need to make sure your disaster recovery plans are kept up to date – don’t leave your plans behind in pre-history collecting dust.

Be prepared

When we think of the worst that can happen, it’s tempting for businesses to adopt the ‘this will never happen to me’ mindset. While extreme scenarios like The Day After Tomorrow are thankfully the stuff of science fiction, adverse and extreme weather is having an increasing impact on businesses around the world. Events like the 2018 heat wave in the UK or snowstorms in the US have crippled both countries’ transport links, causing chaos for employees trying to get to work. In addition, terrorist events such as the Westminster bridge incident remind us of the unpredictability of disruption.

Businesses shouldn’t neglect the importance of having a strategy in place that can be adapted to a variety of situations. From the most basic level, leaders need to make sure they have a back-up location prepared that key staff can easily reach. Also remember to keep remote working policies up to date and compliant with the latest information sharing regulations. Business operations can take anywhere from a few hours to days or even weeks to get back up and running, so planning for the worst-case scenario is useful. And a plan that isn’t tested regularly may be vulnerable when the situation arises.

As we’ve seen, catastrophes can take many different forms: from natural disasters like earthquakes, to man-made mistakes or experiments gone wrong. Besides providing entertainment value, the best disaster films can be a surprisingly educational source for businesses in what to do – and not to do – in disaster recovery planning and execution.


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