Planning Assumptions Can Undermine Resilience


In the previous article about resilience, Dr Parker highlighted the importance of testing existing corporate and organisational plans, which include all forms of crisis, emergency, security, risk and continuity plans. It was emphasised that the plans are only useful if they are relevant and effective. A critical issue in both the development of plans and testing them is the underlying assumptions. These need to be accurate and objective, because this goes to the heart of the resilience of each organisation.

The assumptions around pandemic response plans provide a good example to consider, particularly as such plans have security as well as other implications. Organisations around the globe developed pandemic response plans following the outbreak of a series of global infectious diseases including H5N1 (bird flu) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003, and H1N1 (swine flu) in 2009. Some organisational response plans were very simple and were limited to telling people to wash their hands, cough into their elbow and limit physical contact, such as not shaking hands with colleagues. Others developed elaborate plans about projected employee attrition rates, potential negative impacts on production levels or service delivery and supply chains and so on, while other organisations were more concerned about the optics of the potential crisis and issued face masks to employees emblazoned with company logos and handed out pamphlets.

As is known from the World Health Organization, estimating the actual number of individual cases of an infectious disease and associated deaths is difficult because many people do not seek medical care and only a small number of those who seek care are tested. This has implications for planners and any assumption about who will turn up to work and whether they might be a carrier of an infectious disease needs to be considered objectively. Further complicating the issue is the extent to which public information is reliable. This is not because of deliberate misinformation, but because laboratories stop testing when overwhelmed and underreporting of hospitalisations and deaths occurs because they are not always accurately attributed to the infectious disease.

Basing planning assumptions on previous or similar situations can also be flawed. For example, planning for the H5N1 pandemic in 2003 on the basis of the 1918–1919 influenza pandemic, which had a mortality rate of 2.5 percent of those infected, would have been grossly inaccurate. At its peak, H5N1 had a laboratory confirmed mortality rate of 60 percent in those infected with the disease.

Another consideration in planning which will affect the resilience of many organisations relates to assumptions about what resources will be available as part of response strategies. Again drawing on pandemic planning as an example, consideration needs to be given to a range of factors. Depending on the severity and rate of spread of the infectious disease, state authorities may introduce stringent public health measures, such as strict infection control, compulsory isolation, enforced quarantine, social distancing, limited in-country travel, restrictive international border control measures for arrivals and departures, mass vaccinations and prioritised distribution of antivirals – if they are available in time. All of these issues are factors that may affect the overall resilience level of any organisation. This means that any planning assumptions need to be rigorously objective.

A final aspect about assumptions as they relate to testing plans is to be clear about why the exercise is being conducted, because this will influence what assumptions are made. For example, it could be assumed that all participants have the same level of training, or that certain facilities and resources will be available. However, it is worth keeping in mind that these assumptions may be false or inaccurate.

The key message of this article is to examine critically all assumptions to ensure they are accurate and objective. Doing this will save a lot of time and effort, and may also save lives.

Dr Rita Parker is a consultant advisor to organisations seeking to increase their corporate and organisational resilience and crisis management ability. She is an adjunct lecturer at the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy campus where she lectures on resilience and nontraditional challenges to security from nonstate actors and arising from non-human sources. Dr Parker is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Center for Infrastructure Protection at George Mason University Law School, Virginia, USA. She is a former senior advisor to Australian federal and state governments in the area of resilience and security. Dr Parker’s work and research has been published in peerreviewed journals and as chapters in books Australia, Malaysia, the United States, Singapore and Germany and presented and national and international conferences. Rita holds a PhD, MBA, Grad. Dip., BA, and a Security Risk Management Diploma.