The Preparation Plight: Can Utilities be Overprepared?

Think being overprepared is always going to be well-received?  Well, check out this true story:

The forecasters were predicting a major snow storm, two to three feet of snow, heavy winds, difficult travel conditions, the whole nine yards. The Incident Commander (IC) mobilized the storm team members, even brought in both shifts early so they would be ready to respond. All personnel were safe, sound and in place, waiting for the arrival of the storm. Logistics made arrangements for mutual assistance, extra contractor personnel, tree trimming, everything. Personnel were moving in from other parts of the country, ready to respond once the storm passed. Cots were set up, hotel rooms reserved, plenty of food and supplies were made available. From all the signs, metrics and prognostications, this was going to be a bad one.

The hours passed. The storm did not cause the damage that was predicted. The last time there was a forecast like this, there were major customer outages and people were out of service for a week. This time, nothing. Minimal damage.

The staff got antsy. They wanted to know, was it time to go back to normal work, or time to go home? And then the IC got a call from the President of the company. He wanted to meet. What could this be about? The expenses related to pre-mobilizing personnel? The cost of feeding and housing employees pre-storm?

The president walked in, shook the IC’s hand, and said “Job well done.”

Sound too good to be true? This actually happened to someone here at EPP a few years ago. Unfortunately, not every IC has such understanding leadership.

Consider the recent winter storm Nemo. For some companies, Nemo was a non-event, while for others, not far away, it caused a lot of problems. Same forecasts, same margins of error, different outcomes. Some IC’s came out looking like heroes, while neighboring colleagues risked criticism, especially from their own bosses, for being “overprepared.”

If your job is to make sure that your customers are not afflicted with an unbearable lapse of service; if your job is to evaluate the best weather data you can get and compare it against established threat levels, damage estimates and trigger points; if your job is to help prevent public criticism, regulatory sanction and devalued stock due to prolonged restoration; if you know that there is a reasonable chance that an incident could threaten all of these, how can anyone, especially in your own company, in all good conscience accuse you of being “overprepared?”

Success depends upon previous preparation, and without such preparation there is sure to be failure.”

Which leads to some interesting questions for leadership: Is it a mistake to be “overprepared?” Is over-preparation somehow equivalent to failure? Should being too-well-prepared somehow be considered a career-limiting or career-threatening occurrence?

Leadership, especially in this case, must allow some room for “failure.” Just as you cannot engineer a storm, earthquake or wildfire – that’s a job for a higher pay grade than we find here on earth – it is impossible to engineer a perfect response or perfect preparation.

Storm prep and response are hard enough jobs as it is without unwarranted criticism from above. Millions of dollars and the welfare of thousands hinge on your ability to make sense out of factors which are, in the final analysis, beyond your control. The only difference between your bosses’ mistakes and yours is that, when an event does not cause the predicted damage, your “mistake” is easier to see.

There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure.

We have written more than once about the power of advocacy and it would appear to apply once again to your job as IC. If you are charged with advance preparation for mass restoration, you need to advocate for your position long before a threatening event appears on anyone’s radar screen. Your bosses – all of them – need to be familiar with the time and money needed just to get additional resources in place. They need to know the criteria you use for making your decisions. And they need to be acutely sensitive to and involved with the public relations, regulatory and investment threats that an inadequate response can cause.

Then they have to sign off on your authority to deal with it all and make an unwavering commitment to support your judgment. That’s the kind of thing really good, inspirational leaders do.

So be your own best advocate. On those “blue sky” days when no one is thinking much about hurricanes or tornadoes or ice or dust storms, think about what your bosses know and don’t know about the intricacies of ramping up for restoration. And see if you can help make them more supportive of your role by filling them in. It might relieve some of the stress you feel when that radar screen does light up.

Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure… than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.

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