Ask Scot Phelps and he’ll tell you that the challenge isn’t keeping it simple (as in “Keep It Simple Stupid” or “KISS”), but making it simple in the first place. As it turns out, that’s sort of hard to do and pretty rare to find in business continuity.
Simple Isn't Stupid!
Fri, 04/30/2010 - 8:00pm
Phelps says he thinks we need to think more about designing systems and tools that are simple, intuitive and “help us maintain competency in a crisis.” But instead of doing that, we tend to get caught up in bells and whistles that we don’t need, that the rank and file can’t use, and that ultimately complicate our lives and hinder crisis response.
“When I think about things, I try to think about them from a practitioner’s perspective—what works and what doesn’t work and why,” he says. And having been a professor of emergency management, a BC practitioner, and a consultant, he’s got the experience and the chops to do just that. These days, Phelps says he is “really interested in how we actually get people prepared, how to manage knowledge and train people to make decisions in a crisis.”
“Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions” by Gary Klein is “one of the most important books written on decision-making,” according to Phelps. “Basically, what it says is that you can train people to make decisions by giving them lots of opportunities to make decisions. That seems pretty intuitive, right?”
But it’s not. And Phelps says business continuity program leaders often do not provide opportunities for that kind of decision making by the people who will be called upon to enact plans and make decisions during a crisis—people who are not accustomed to performing under pressure.
“I was a paramedic for almost 20 years,” says Phelps. “Paramedics spend their whole day dealing with uncertainty. They sit there doing nothing until they are told to go somewhere and deal with a problem and try to fix it. And then they do it again. They are unflappable. But when you have a business unit manager whose daily life is very routine, that’s totally different. How do you train him to deal with a crisis? How do we maintain competency in a crisis when a crisis is rare? That’s kind of a hard thing do.”
Simple tools are a must, says Phelps, and the kind Phelps likes best are what he calls “functional toys.” His favorite? The iPhone. “I had the guts to tell an organization I worked for that I thought they should buy everyone an iPhone because it’s a really good learning management platform. And it is. When you open it up out of the box it comes with a big instruction booklet, right? No! There is no instruction booklet for the iPhone. You press the button and turn it on and you are faced with intuitive icons. The little thing that looks like a clock and says “clock” is a clock. And what do you think you have to do to get it to work—touch it!”
“So when I think about how we spend all this time and effort and money trying to teach people how to respond in a crisis, this really bothered me that Apple created a device that with no training at all, with no instruction booklet, no manual, they could get hundreds of millions of people to use their phone.”
“We spend tons of time on training and education,” says Phelps. “And most of the time, it doesn’t work.” He says people “don’t like” the typical lecture format and that while tests and exercises get a better reception, they are also usually few and far between and it’s “really hard” to get senior management to participate in them.” Phelps says this leads him to believe that “maybe we’re not working from the right perspective.”
“I want to focus on design, not trying to teach people or get them to behave a certain way. I’m wondering if we design our systems better, is it going to be easier for us in a crisis?”
He says the iPhone is a perfect example, even though “it doesn’t do everything.” In fact, the iPhone is sometimes criticized for being a “closed system,” but that’s what makes it work, says Phelps. “The Microsoft smart phone was open, too open, and it was impossible to use. The nice part about the iPhone is that it is closed. You can’t screw it up, and that’s important.” Phelps says we need to design BC tools the same way. “We need to think about how we get really good at what we need to do and not necessarily be really good at everything under the sun.”
Phelps has a rule of thumb when it comes to BC processes and tools: “I strongly prefer the cheap, simple, and common over the special, specific and custom.” He suggests taking “the common things you use every day and thinking a little bit more about how you’re going to use them and thinking a little bit more about how your customers are going to use them. What is their experience going to be like? Is it going to be simple or intuitive or not?”
And that’s not something BC practitioners can determine on their own. Phelps says usability testing of business continuity tools is “critically important. Of course, it looks simple to you. You’re the business continuity person. Try it out on the guy in accounting who is going to have to use it.”
“Making things simpler is the beauty of advanced business continuity,” he says. “Once you’ve got the plan in place, and you’ve done some baseline testing, your next job is to make it simpler, make it easier, more common.”
Maximizing the tools you already have is a great place to start, says Phelps. And even though he’s “no Microsoft fan,” he suggests starting with Microsoft Office, adding that most people only use about 10 percent of the functionality and aren’t even aware of the incident management task tracking potential of a tool that “we all have already anyway.”
More than just having it, most people already use it and are familiar with it. “That means it’s going to require less training. There’s no learning curve, it’s already on every desktop, and IT is already worrying about versioning. You don’t have to do that.”
A key concept of good design is “leveraging the everyday,” says Phelps. Its how we know which way doors open just by looking at them and how to read road signs. “You know the signals, and you know things like most doors don’t open by pushing them up. It’s just not the way the world works.”
Phelps says this concept must be taken in to consideration by BC professionals implementing tools that they expect to be used in a crisis. “We need to try to minimize new learning. Adults are lazy! We want people to be able to apply current analogies to new problems.”
Phelps says “new learning is inefficient.” He tells the story of a hospital ER director who refused to switch from manual charting to the new computer-based system. A “brilliant man” and a hard worker, the ER director understood that the electronic system would be more efficient in the long run. He just couldn’t afford the 120-day hit to productivity and the associated revenue loss that would bring while getting his staff up to speed on the new system. “So, he refused to do it. People aren’t dumb. They refuse to engage in change because they realize the downside to them.” And that means BC practitioners should be looking to “minimize new learning and maximize efficiency and performance.”
“Anything we can do to cut down on the clutter is important,” says Phelps. He says people need “less stuff” so that they “can’t make a mess, make wrong turns, and get off track. We need to provide a simple clear path about what they are supposed to be doing and where they are supposed to be going.”
He says many BC professionals assume that people know what to do in the first place and fail to provide adequate instruction. And that problem is exacerbated by the failure to provide feedback. Often “the only feedback they receive is after the fact, and maybe not even then.”
“We need to make it easy for people to get back on track” and “Make it tough to make the wrong choice in the first place.” CI