Sustain-ability: Worst Case Scenario Planning

There are times when I realize how my experience as a PM really colors the way I interpret things. A recent, very visible, example was the situation at the Cincinnati zoo that resulted in the death of an endangered gorilla. I doubt there's anyone who hasn't seen the news coverage (and resulting social media frenzy) so I won't belabor the basic facts. I should say, however, that I do not live in Cincinnati, I was not at the zoo that day, and I have no more information than most of us did -- the shaky camera phone video and news footage.

Now most people reacted to the story in one of two ways a) they shouldn't have shot the gorilla, the parents are to blame b) they had to shoot the gorilla, this was a terrible accident. Social media mayhem ensues.

I, on the other hand, saw the story and thought: I wonder if this was covered in the zoo's risk management planning?

Because if I ran the zoo, the first thing I'd want to do as part of the incident post mortem (unfortunate choice of words, but that's what they call them in business) is review the response plans for various scenarios to see whether they were complete, up to date, and well-known among staff and security. For example, it's clear that screaming spectators can make an animal nervous. It's also clear that video camera footage can make for a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking. So how quickly did they clear and cordon off the area (or did they? I assume they did at some point)? And do they have a checklist for animal risk assessment when choosing a lethal or non-lethal response? A checklist they can use to a) make decisions when the heat is on and b) use to validate their decisions later to outraged PETA members and their lawyers? Do the staff responsible for making the call whether to shoot an animal perform regular scenario training?

Again, I wasn't there and I don't know anything about the zoo's risk management. They may have done all these things because, you know, stuff still goes wrong despite planning. That's not my primary point. What I'm trying to convey is:
  • When you start to view the world in a PM sort of way things look very different.
  • When something goes wrong the most important thing is not what happened, but what you do next. How you handle it and how you adjust for next time.
  • You have to plan for the worst case scenario, even if that scenario never happens. Because the act of planning strengthens both your current and possible future situation.
The other day I ran across a family I am acquainted with. I hadn't seen them in some time and was sorry to hear that they'd had a run of bad luck, including some illness and injury. In addition, one of the adults in the family had just been laid off. 

I'm familiar with that particular career field and pointed out "well, at least the hiring market is pretty strong right now." The response was that, unfortunately, hiring managers were looking for skillset A, B, C, and D and he only had A. I suggested going through the unemployment office to see about reduced cost training (when I was dealing with a stint of unemployment during the winter of our discontent -- AKA 2008/2009 -- I took a certification course that helped strengthen my resume and paid only a fraction of the cost). He agreed that this might be a good idea. Then he said "it was hard enough finding this last job nine years ago."

Now, approaching things with a PM mindset, who can identify the issue here? Yeah, if he recognized the risk nine years ago, why didn't he spend the intervening years building up his missing skills? It would have improved his prospects in the event of the worst case scenario, but it would have also strengthened his position at his current job, potentially reducing the risk of a layoff. Finally, it's a lot easier to access training when you are employed because you can often get your employer to pay for it (or a portion of it). It's a win-win-win.

I'm not talking about some BS, make yourself a better employee and they won't lay you off idea. That's pure mythology. You can be great and still get canned. I'm talking about making yourself more valuable to increase your options no matter what happens. That might mean being the very best at what you currently do, broadening your skillset in your existing field, or even going orthogonal and getting a skill in a totally unrelated field (which might be the most anti-fragile option). I'm thinking of engineers studying permaculture or teachers learning locksmithing or bus drivers going to night school for HVAC certification.

I've tried all three methods. When I was young, I worked at being very, very good and collecting references. Then I realized that to keep my interest up I needed to branch out into related areas and get certifications and skills. I've already pivoted three times in my career, within the same broad field, but in markedly different areas. Now I'm visiting ideas for orthogonal skills as well.

It's the same with magic. Your primary ongoing target should be yourself and your family. First, it's the target you know best. People aren't actually that good at knowing themselves, but they at least know themselves better than they know a near stranger. Plus you can more easily judge the effects. So you spell for a different job and got it. Did it make you happy? Are you more fulfilled? It's easier to work incrementally and respond to feedback when you are the target of your energies.

Second, you're going to be the most amenable to your workings. It's hard making people do things they don't want to do (shoot it's hard getting people to do the things they want to do). For example, I consider binding one of the least effective techniques in magic. It's very difficult getting people to stop doing what they want to do through just the force of your will. If I want you to stop doing something, I'm going to either harm you directly, throw up obstacles in your way, or enchant your enemies to get you. For example, if a serial rapist is operating in my area, I'm not going to try to bind him to stop raping. No, I'm going to curse him and I'm going to do magic to get him caught by the police (who are motivated to do what I want them to do already, and so are much more amenable to my influence and help).

Third, there's not a lot in the world you can count on. The career you just spend 8 years training for could disappear. The place you wanted to live forever could change for the worse. And people move away, die, and change. But you can always count on you. I'm not talking about being selfish here. Other people matter and you probably have a small cadre of people who you can count on like you can count on yourself. But when you work on making yourself better, you tend to make yourself a better friend/spouse/relative as well.

So look at your personal worst case scenarios and see if there's anything you can do about them now. A layoff? Strengthen, broaden, expand your skills before that happens. Housing crisis? I wrote a lengthy post on thinking through that challenge already. Bad health diagnosis? Don't make me mention healthy eating again. Even if it doesn't change the outcome, it will make you feel better now and stronger whatever comes to pass.

I wanted to wait to make this post until after all the emotional furor from the zoo story died down. But it's strange posting it today, when people are watching the news and thinking that sometimes you can't plan for the worst case. It's true. Sometime the worst case comes for you and you can't anticipate it. Terrible things do happen with no warning. You can't control everything (and that pains me to say it, since controlling things is kind of what I do) but you can control you... and you should. When you work to make yourself a better person (more employable, healthier, KINDER, MORE LOVING), MORE TOLERANT) that's a very good thing. And you control that. That's all you.


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