How to prepare your startup for the worst case scenario


Mistakes can range from annoying to catastrophic. Few of us want to make them; most of us hate it when we do.

Mistakes can prove very costly; emotionally, financially and in terms of life itself.

No wonder we feel edgy when doing something out of the norm. But mistakes occur just as often when we’re going about our everyday business.

This is why we have risk management, which constitutes preparing and covering all bases in the event of things going wrong. Too often, though, we have reviews afterwards to examine and explain (with the rich benefit of hindsight) what ought to have happened instead.

Black Swan Events

When a huge completely completely unexpected event occurs, it is sometimes referred to as a black swan event. It catches everyone by surprise and (usually) requiring instantaneous, sometimes very difficult decisions to be made. The police, army, intelligence and emergency services professions are dealing with black swans more than most of us, and with sufficient training, can turn a standoff into lives being saved.

The problem is that the “normalising” of risk in their line of work means that even they don’t always have the tools for handling a crisis once it erupts. It can be tragically convenient for the person at the top to instead assign blame and throw their subordinates under a metaphorical bus.

An entire industry of disaster and heist films are based around mistakes and black swan events and whaddaya know, the unconventional problem-solver is always the one to save the day. Lucky organisations have such people working for them!

What can we do?

1. Planning for worst case scenarios

Most workplaces have emergency evacuation policies, for example, but how many are sufficiently considering what they say and do on social media, handling complaints and grievances, improving audits of company processes, etc? One of the keys to changing behaviour is improving situational awareness.

Situational unawareness is for example demonstrated every day by pedestrians wearing earbuds, as their spatial and sensory awareness is considerably reduced.

To foster situational awareness, companies often use risk matrices to calculate the number and types of risks and mistakes, and rank the likelihood of their happening. Those really wanting to reduce the rate of error in the workplace sometimes engage specialists in predictive analytics. When assessing for the likelihood of mistakes, draw widely on as much input and experience as possible and keep abreast of laws and industry developments in this area.

Planning for mistakes and worst case scenarios is healthy and may save lives!

2. Handling crises and mistakes calmly

It’s human to want to blast a person over a mistake when everyone is stressed, but we all need to remember the difference between unintentional, one-off mistakes and occurrences that spell disaster. Either way, it is essential to try and keep calm. You are walking in a zone full of landmines, and need your wits and a cooler head for seeing what can be done.

Experienced people are valuable in such instances, for the simple reason that they’ve seen this before and may have good insights about how to tackle the matter. Their solutions may be unconventional or “old-fashioned”, but definitely worth considering.

Think of the situation recently when a man on a train started acting irrationally. Everyone froze, terrified, except one older woman who reached out and took his hand. He calmed down almost immediately, held her hand for the remainder of his trip and when alighting, said “Thanks, Grandma”. When later asked why she did it, she replied that she was a mother and instinctively thought he needed human touch to soothe him. She was right, as it turned out, but it was an enormous risk.

When things are going smoothly, invite everyone to discuss and familiarise themselves with company procedures to minimise any fallout. Everyone has a stake in getting things right and keeping the workplace safe.

3. Appoint a senior person to make the relevant decisions

When something goes wrong, the buck must fall with a person at the top to decide what must come next. If too many people are involved, things can become confusing. Tempers flare and errors can be compounded. Appoint and train that designated person and ensure time and resources are given to crisis preparation and management. Making life-and-death or split-second decisions entails considerable tactical and emotional responsibility, so staff need to trust the designated person, and to have confidence that person has what it takes to minimise the problem.

4. Keep communication channels open

As in more literal emergencies, contain the “fire”, put it out, tend to those who’ve been impacted, keep track of who’s with you and who’s elsewhere, and relay operations back to base.

In this situation, you’re working as a team, which is why rehearsing and planning for such events is vital. When everyone knows what to do, things work much more smoothly. Be realistic and don’t try to fudge on what’s happened. Resist temptation to blame. There may well be causes for the mistake that go beyond an individual.

This article was first published on SmartCompany.

Follow StartupSmart on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Soundcloud.

Eve Ash is a psychologist, author, filmmaker, public speaker and entrepreneur. She runs Seven Dimensions, a company specialising in training resources for the workplace.
  • Nick Assafiri

    Not exactly optimistic but this is the marginal reality facing startups. There must be contingencies prepared for everything. However, there are a lot of startups that succeeded eventually from major failures. It is a matter of regrouping and maintaining focus.