Contingency Planning: It’s Not All Bad News


There’s another hurricane heading toward Florida, so I’m in the process of developing my personal contingency plans, depending on which path the storm eventually takes. This wouldn’t surprise too many of my friends or professional peers. While a pleasant enough person, I’m also a pessimist.

Perhaps, being Irish, I subscribe to Murphy’s Law more than the average person. This doesn’t mean I spend all day worrying or expecting the worst out of people or overall situations. I love my job, and I do it joyfully. It does mean, however, that I am willing to bring a voice of caution to various work situations. I drive optimists up the wall because I keep asking “What if?”, but more realistic managers appreciate my willingness to plan for other eventualities and see the whole picture.

Pessimism as a communication practice

One of the best applications for this mindset comes in crisis communication planning. This is a sub-discipline of strategic communication and public relations that ensures organizations have responses ready if/when bad situations take place. Crisis communication plans include not just what to say in a crisis situation, but also accounts for who is authorized to say what and how the chain of command will operate if specific individuals within the chain of command are not available. It’s a sometimes-unpleasant, extended game of “What if?” but at the end of it, your organization has a plan and the people within it know what to do if an emergency situation crops up.

Practical pessimism in your work life

One side effect of being an operational pessimist is that I tend to over-communicate in high-pressure situations, such as proposals. The optimist says, “I’ll get this to you tomorrow!” The pessimist, not knowing if a mishap will interrupt his or her work flow, might take the step of sharing the current-state draft at the end of each day or sometimes twice a day so that anyone wanting the latest draft can find a reasonable facsimile should the writer’s cat get sick or car get sideswiped by a garbage truck.

I call this attitude the “Hit by a Bus” theory of operations, and it basically means that I try to make sure that my customer or manager knows the status of what I’m doing at the end of the day or before I go on vacation or off the clock so that nothing is lost or dropped.

Pessimism off the clock

My optimist friends might not want to hear this, but you want a pessimist to do your planning for you. Not your brainstorming–leave that to the fun people who believe that the sky’s the limit. But when it comes to the nuts and bolts of estimating how long things will take or when people need to arrive for a vacation, business trip, or party, the pessimist will have a better feel for which forms of Murphy’s Law are most likely to affect a program or event schedule and add the appropriate amount of margin into the process.

I’ve touched on this issue before. Adding margin to a schedule and then finishing ahead of schedule might look like the work of a “miracle worker,” but there will be times when the margin–and then some–is needed because the unexpected occurs.

Personal pessimism can also serve as a quiet form of conscience or intuition when dealing with an unknown environment or social situation. Is the person who opened the door to their car really an Uber driver, or are they just taking advantage of you because you look like you’re waiting for someone? Do they have the Uber sticker on their car window, do they have the right license plate number, and do they know your name when opening the door? (A friend of mine recently had to ask these questions of herself in the space of a few seconds, and was glad she did–because the answers to most of these questions turned out to be all the wrong ones.)

Again the point is not to walk around with a dark cloud over your head or to eye every stranger or situation with a cynical eye. Bad situations happen: it’s a reality for all of us. Some folks are just more watchful for those things to happen. So if you’re in the middle of planning a Great Thing and suddenly the quiet one in the back of the room raises his or her hand to question an assumption, don’t get irritated. You should want and will need their feedback. Sometimes all they want to know is that there is a plan on hand if something should go wrong. If there isn’t a plan, the best thing to do is often to put your office pessimist in charge of creating that plan. That will make your Great Thing–whatever it is–foolproof and seamless, because if something goes wrong, you’ve already got a plan!

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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