Facing the black swan of your operations

If you don’t know your company’s black swan, it’s time to face it, says Greg Solecki, an associate director of emergency planning at Sandhurst Consulting in Calgary. The company specializes in training leaders in crisis planning and responses.

A term coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a professor of risk engineering at NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering, a black swan is defined as: “First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.”

Western Canada has had a flock of black swans in the past dozen years, including massive wild fires in Kelowna, Fort St. John, Slave Lake and Fort McMurray and dramatic floods in Calgary, High River and Medicine Hat.

Putting the pieces together

Black swans can defy imagination, Solecki told some 40 people at Enform’s recent Essentials of Incident Command Systems breakfast event in Calgary.

Solecki says oil and gas companies and their leaders need to “put the pieces in place to deal with their black swans properly.”

Those pieces can come together through a number of frameworks such as:

“The reality is you have to have some type of system in place,” Solecki says. Whatever the system, he adds, “you have to get the right training in place to manage a big event . . . and you have to have a decision-making process in place.”

A common reaction in emergencies is “tunnel vision.” Some people can only see what’s immediately in front of them and can’t see any other perspectives or needs.

Solecki says response leaders have to understand that in virtually any emergency, people will initially respond in one of three ways: fight, flight or freeze. Some people, leaders included, will need to be reassigned based on their response.

Greg Solecki

Greg Solecki, associate director of emergency planning, Sandhurst Consulting

The manager of Calgary’s emergency operations centre during the 2013 floods, Solecki’s been involved in more than 150 major emergency responses. He says a company’s planning and decision-making processes need to involve others, such as local first responders, communities, regulatory agencies and municipal, provincial and federal governments.

And he recommends training be put into regular (annual) practice with everyone involved. He reminded the audience of two truisms in emergency preparedness:

  • Paper plans never really survive first contact with the enemy (or an emergency)
  • A quote from boxer Mike Tyson: “Everybody has a plan ‘til they get punched in the face.”

In essence, planning needs to be field tested with practice and mock events.

Solecki also advised companies to reconcile the gap between “what you should be doing and what you’re actually doing.”

Planning, training and practicing for emergency responses may not always go exactly as planned, he said, but they can clip the wings of black swans that land in your operations.