Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Rethinking exit and entrance strategies 3: crisis as a transition demanding challenge 2

Posted in strategy and planning by Timothy Platt on October 13, 2015

This is my third installment to a series that offers a general discussion of business transitions, where an organization exits one developmental stage or period of relative strategic and operational stability, to enter a fundamentally different next one (see Part 1 and Part 2.)

I focused on the categorical example of business crises in Part 2 of this series, as a type of transition that might not be desired but that can compellingly arise nonetheless. And at the end of it, I raised the specter of single points of failure: points in a business’ strategic planning or operational execution where significant business functions flow through a single option point that can become fragile and that can break down – bringing at least specific functional areas of that business to a halt.

These potential trouble spots are often if not usually operational in nature, reflecting gaps in identifying operational contingencies that would have to be addressed, rather than gaps or inconsistencies in underlying business strategy, and as such I identify them as operational single points of failure. I am going to address these challenges first and then proceed to discuss their more fundamentally grounded counterparts: strategic single points of failure next.

• A first essential step in effectively addressing operational single points of failure is to identify precisely where and how they arise,
• And both for what operational process or resource availability limitations are in place,
• And for what circumstances they become problematical in, as choke points in a business.

Until you know these context details, the best you can do is apply band aides to resultant symptoms, when one of these chokepoints does erupt as an active source of problems for you. (I am going to return to those three bullet points when discussing strategic single points of failure and note in anticipation of that, and as a point of contrast, that the events I write of here all involve single operational chokepoints that hold potential for creating operational failures.)

A key to understanding these problems is that they can sneak up on you, arising from directions that you would, for the most part never have found specific reason to consider, and even if you actively pursue a proactive due diligence and risk management approach to your business and its operational practices and processes. As a working example of that, I cite an example from my own work experience that I have noted before in writing to this blog.

When I was first hired to serve as the webmaster for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (LLS), on my first day on that job, a construction worker outside of the building cut all of the high speed cables that were in place to provide internet access, and for the national headquarters of the LLS and for every other organization located there. I had one of the two or three computers assigned to me that still had an old dial-up modem in it, so I had one of a very small number of computers in the entire national office of a large nationally reaching nonprofit that could still in any way connect with the internet, for email access or for anything else – until these cables were repaired early the next day. This represented an operational challenge, rather than a strategic or overall planning one, and it represented a fundamental chokepoint limitation that had its origins well before the LLS moved into that building – so it was one that could not have been anticipated. Apparently, there were no maps available for the grounds outside of the building itself and on its property, showing where underground resources such as those cables actually ran, which is probably why that backhoe operator did not know, and was not told to be careful to avoid them.

• One obvious pre-wireless option for resolving that type of single point of failure was to both repair that one bundle of cables for service restoration, and to run a second, backup bundle of cables physically away from it,
• And both to maintain online connectivity and service if one of these lines were to become compromised or disrupted again,
• And also I add, to accommodate expansion in available cable transmission bandwidth as need for that grew.

This second return on investment result from addressing this type of bottleneck: expansion of maximum readily available cable and network bandwidth has in fact been an ongoing problem for a great many buildings, and not just particularly older ones. Cabled network connectivity and bandwidth availability were a growing and very real problem for many of the offices in the World Trade Center towers, for example. Cable conduits build into the framework of those two buildings were designed essentially entirely pre-internet so no one knew that this could even become a source of problems, and even as a matter of abstract principle.

This discussion up to here has raised two crucially important details for both understanding single points of failure and for addressing them, and proactively and preventively if possible:

• Single points of failure can and I add frequently do arise as a complicating consequence of growth and expansion of a business or organization, where there are gaps in the scalability planning that is put in place to manage that.
• And a single point of failure can suddenly become a possibility as a result of change, and gradually in the case of slower evolutionary change, and suddenly and even seemingly in an instant in the face of disruptive change.
• In the former, slow evolutionary change scenario, a single point of risk of failure can gradually grow into significance and never quite come into visible focus for that – until it and emerging circumstances that would impact upon it lead to a realized single point of failure event at it.
• In the later, disruptive change scenario, when a business and its people are suddenly confronted with massively significant change, they are going to focus on the immediate and obvious points of impact that this creates for them. And the less directly impacted upon, and the less immediately visible will most likely be pushed aside in planning and execution, as an organized response is mounted in reaction to this change event. And if nothing shows at some potential point of adverse impact in a business and its operations – such as a newly formed potential single point of failure chokepoint, it is probably not going to be seen or actively looked for either. Think of this as a downside consequence of single-minded here-and-now prioritization, and of why even crisis response needs to include some big picture observing and thinking too.

As a second operational single point of failure scenario, I would cite an example of a type that is much more intractable, as it is in many respects possible to view it as stemming from more than just operational process or resources limitations. It is one that also stems from fairly deep-set corporate culture limitations too, as they hold potential for shaping and even skewing operational processes and practices. I am going to continue this discussion in a next series installment where I will delve into that challenge. And then as noted above I will discuss strategic single points of failure.

Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings and series at Business Strategy and Operations – 3 and also at Page 1 and Page 2 of that directory.

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