How to master business continuity planning and enable your teams to develop their entrepreneurial and risk management skills, all over the course of an Away Day.
Quite often I’ve been responsible for organising or facilitating team Away Days. I take this responsibility very seriously, and would say I’ve organised some pretty epic Away Days in my time.
Most companies are satisfied with their teams doing something physical and fun in the daytime, followed by alcohol and karaoke (there is never karaoke on my watch).
I expect a bit more from an Away Day. I see it as a golden opportunity to strengthen how teams work together, and not just in a “let’s go to Crystal Maze” kind of way.
“But my teams work together every day.”
True. But think of it like going to the gym. If you went to the gym and bench pressed weights every day, over time you’d get pretty good at it. You could start at 5kg and eventually end up lifting 50kg. However, if you were suddenly asked to jump on a treadmill and run at 12km/hr for 45 minutes, you might struggle, right? You’ve become a brilliant weightlifter, but you don’t know the first thing about long-distance endurance running.
Your teams are a bit like this.
Every day they work in a similar way to the previous one, and over time they’re becoming better and better at it. What they’re not doing, though, is developing other skills or learning to adapt in unfamiliar situations.
Generally speaking, that’s OK. You hire people to do a job, and your responsibility is to create an environment that enables them to become good at that job. Unfortunately, if the coronavirus pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that that’s not enough. The world can change very quickly, and a CEO-approved continuity plan (while vital) is only the first step in preparedness. CEOs also need to ensure they have a team that isn’t too stuck in their ways, and can adapt and flourish in unpredictable, changing circumstances.
The word “entrepreneur” is used so much it’s become synonymous with being a founder or CEO. But in my mind, entrepreneurism is a skill (not a role), and one all business leaders need. It’s the skill of being able to innovate, to fill a need, to identify what’s missing and imagine a solution that others couldn’t.
You can use Away Days to work on your business continuity plan, learn more about how you and others react in uncertain situations (the good and the bad), and give everyone the opportunity to explore and develop their entrepreneurial skills. An Away Day can achieve all this and still be fun, I promise. You don’t often get the chance to break from business as usual, so when you do, make the most of it.
I present to you: The Zombie Apocalypse Plan
My long-standing love of zombie movies is to thank for this particular Away Day format. Some people watch sports at the weekend, I like to spend mine with friends and family … plotting, in great detail, what we’d do if the zombies hit. It feels especially poignant right now, considering I’m currently trapped inside a Spanish apartment, during the coronavirus lockdown.
Here’s how to execute this Away Day.
In the run-up to the Away Day, drip feed information about the scenarios that teams will need to address.
Here are three examples:
1. (Basic) Zombie invasion
The situation: For two weeks zombies will walk the earth. The zombies aren’t very intelligent, so provided no one leaves the house, everyone will be OK.
Why it works: This is a great warm-up scenario and is a basic business continuity plan. It forces you to consider how the business will operate if the office is unusable, transport fails, there is dangerous weather, technology is at risk, teams need to be working from home due to illness, and so on.
2. (Intermediate) Zombie virus
The situation: The world has been infected with a zombie virus. It’s unclear who the virus will affect, we only know that over the next 6 weeks, 20% of the population will turn into zombies. The other 80% are naturally immune. It makes no difference if people stay indoors because everyone is already infected. The zombies can not create other zombies, but they need to be killed because they are extremely aggressive and violent. Fortunately they aren’t very intelligent and can be killed by decapitation.
Why it works: This scenario is a little harder, because fear, paranoia, and panic have been added into the mix, and the time frame is longer. The question now is whether you can, or should, run. Thankfully there’s an end in sight – but does that make things easier or harder? Do you capitalise on those six weeks, or wait it out?
3. (Advanced) Life with zombies
The situation: We share the world with zombies. The zombies are not intelligent but they are aggressive and contagious. At least 30% of the population are zombies, and although there are rebel groups committed to hunting them, the rate of infection equals the rate of death, so the number of zombies doesn’t seem to change. The world has been like this for over two years now, and countries have adapted in different ways.
Why it works: In some ways this scenario is refreshing. Because things are stable, you can plan for the long term, unless of course your vision is to create a different reality. Whatever the case, your business will need to evolve in a significant way, because the new “normal” is a far cry from today’s world. You have big decisions to make regarding how your business will cope in this new world.
On the day, split everyone into their existing or new teams. Working in existing teams gives them the chance to explore and debate new concepts together. Creating new teams (where there’s at least one person representing each business function) encourages cross-team interaction and may result in more diverse zombie plans.
Teams assembled, get them to start by listing:
- The questions they have about the scenario
- The assumptions they are making
This alone is a great exercise in continuity planning and risk management. Before you can make any kind of plan or design, you have to know the facts, acknowledge what you don’t know, and be clear on the assumptions you’re making.
Then, teams can start mapping out their zombie plan. Prompt them to think of things like:
- What does this world look like? Describe the state of the economy, the politics, the environment, the streets, the emotions of people etc.
- How does the company mission fit within this world?
- Will there be demand for your product? Do you need to create a different one? Can you make a different one?
- Who will your clients be? What happens to your old clients?
- Is your intention to survive or make money? Is it okay to profit from people during hard times?
- Think about how quickly you’d act, what skills are needed, how you will market it etc.
- How do you plan to pay your debts and pay your employees?
- How exactly will your business operate? What’s needed in terms of processes, tools, logistics etc.
- If you can’t operate, what will the impact be? If you shut down, do you keep people employed? Do you have cashflow to see you through, are there debts or investors that will require cash?
- What community services will be impacted and can you help? Should you?
- How will your team measure up in this world? Who will be frightened and want out, who will thrive?
You get the gist.
Ask each team to present their plans in an imaginative way, bearing as little resemblance to a typical meeting as possible. This is supposed to be fun, remember, so zombie puns, props and dramatisations are very much encouraged.
Now it’s time to take those well-laid plans outside of the room. With a theme like this, I’d consider:
- Taking the team out to a zombie shopping mall immersive experience.
- Playing a game of zombie paintball or laser tag.
- If you’re in Budapest (why not, it’s super cheap), go to the most terrifying experience I have ever taken part in, Nightmare in Budapest.
I realise that many personality types won’t love these kinds of activities, but that’s just what continuity plans are there for – the times when you can’t keep everything within your control.
Immersive experiences like these will get endorphins going and take everyone out of their comfort zones, but there’s more to it than that:
- You learn a lot about yourself when you’re thrown into an extreme situation. For some, that’s a terrifying end-of-the-world themed game of laser tag; for others, it’s being trapped on your own, working remotely due to a spreading virus. Embrace the opportunity to discover (in a safe space) how you’ll cope.
- Plans are all very well, but to execute a plan you need people. If you do find yourself reaching for the company’s continuity plan, chances are it’s because something bad has happened. It’s essential your plan accounts for the human emotions that may arise in these situations (paranoia, fear, panic, uncertainty) and to stress-test if your plan works with all that taken into consideration. There’s no better way to bring home that message than by seeing it first-hand (side note: at Nightmare in Budapest, my husband at the time literally threw me in front of a chainsaw-wielding madman and ran for his life…).
One more thing. Before everybody descends on the nearest bar, get the teams to regroup and debrief. After bonding through fear, what have you learned about each other? Does your plan need some tweaking as a result?
Then, of course, go and get drunk. Or learn the moves to Thriller. Ideally do both at the same time.
It’s bloody hard to start a business, to find product market fit, and to make your business a success. If you’ve done this, you have already achieved more than most.
But don’t stop there. Surviving in business takes knowing that, at any point, external forces could require you to pivot, adapt, iterate, stop, rebuild – and you may not get much time to figure out the best way forward. Not only will you need to rely on your entrepreneurism and your continuity planning skills, you’ll also need to be surrounded by a team that can roll with the punches.
Give yourself and your teams the space to think about these kinds of things while you have the chance, and to learn more about who you all are, and who you could be.
And also, zombies. They’re coming. Choose your weapon.