What small businesses can learn from Ebola

By Laura Haight
Originally published as The Digital Maven in Upstate Business Journal, Oct. 10, 2014


Since the first news of Ebola hit the general press, I have listened with skepticism as one expert after another assured us that Ebola was no where near as contagious as we’ve heard, that it could not possibly reach the US, and that even if it did we are fully prepared to stop it in its tracks with the most well trained, advanced medical system in the world.

Ah ha. There we have it. The spin machine at work. Unfortunately, as we have seen, there’s a giant chasm between the press release and the reality.

If you’re like me, you are horrified at the lapses in procedure that have occurred in Texas and increasingly concerned that all the spin we’ve been hearing is not backed up by well-established, tested and practiced procedures.

But what could that possibly have to do with my business or yours?

What is happening in Dallas is an emergency — a situation outside the ordinary for which special procedures and plans were prepared. You and I may not have life-threatening contagions to worry about, but we have threats, emergencies and disasters to factor into our plans.

We have talked before about emergency preparedness, disaster recovery and business resumption plans. Perhaps you have checked to see if you have a plan (breathed a big sigh of relief there, right?), or taken steps to get a plan developed. Wherever you are with your planning, there are important lessons in the Ebola outbreak that can be applied to us.

  1. Bottoms Up. I used to have a colleague who derisively referred to everyone in senior management as “the geniuses”.  Top-down decisions and plans, built without input from line staff, often have holes big enough to drive a Proterra bus through. Emergency plans built by management focus on the big picture of what should happen. That’s fine as far as it goes, but the key to a successful plan is not the “what”, but the “how.”  To know and prepare for that, you have to ask those who “do”.

  2. Use your imagination. Emergency plans are too often based on assumptions that elements of the plan will work well, that you’ll be able to access your databases, that everyone will do their jobs, that no key staffer will be on vacation the day the tornado hits. The truly effective plan thinks outside the box and plans for mess ups, miscues and mistakes. In Texas, for example, days were lost when the waste disposal company refused to transport the Ebola waste. This might have been expected since the same thing happened at Emory University Hospital where US doctors from Liberia were being treated. Forty pounds of Ebola waste each day was held in bags and barrels at Emory for six days while they searched for a waste disposal company to take it. Since it had already happened, that was a problem that should have been anticipated and planned for by Texas Presbyterian.  

  3. Rely on people not systems. At Texas Presbyterian, hospital personnel relied on computerized workflow and assumed that because they gathered certain information, then naturally everyone would see it and use it. That was a bad assumption. Sometimes situations required - no, demand! - that we get outside of the plan and get face to face with critical staff. A good emergency plan not only draws its backbone from the bottom up, but builds in person-to-person communication so we can work through the unexpected things that happened in step 2.

  4. Rock smashes Paper. As every football fan knows, it’s easy to draw up a winning plan on paper. But rarely do all the x’s and o’s move around exactly as we would like. The hardest part of any planning process is getting all the stakeholders to agree to a full test of the plan. But it is really the only way to know what you forgot. Until you’re standing there wondering if the guy you’ve hired to clean up the patients’ apartment is supposed to have a DOT license, you just won’t realize that was something you should have checked.

  5. Nothing is as certain as change.  Did you lose an employee in the last year? Perhaps an important one? Did you update the contact info in your emergency plan? (I could go on with system vendors, switched digital service, changed passwords on cloud services, but I think you get the picture).

We cannot imagine the tornado will ever hit, the river could possibly rise that fast, or a deadly contagion could reach our cities. But the unexpected and unimaginable happens every day. And the businesses that planned well and learned from other businesses mistakes are always the best able to weather those storms.