FSG Blog
May 11, 2020

Getting Ahead of the Incident

Joe DuFresne

Manage today plan tomorrow

One of the challenges of facilitating a scenario planning workshop is getting participants to abandon their assumptions based on “today” and to imagine a substantially different “tomorrow.”  The Covid-19 pandemic has likely made that challenge a bit easier, since what we would consider “today” is actually “yesterday.”  In fact, the new challenge is defining what “today” even looks like, much less imagining “tomorrow.”  Make sense?  Confuddling or not, we should be imagining and planning for that tomorrow with scenario planning rigor in order to survive on the other side of this event.  How do we manage today plan tomorrow, though, when we are still struggling with how to get through today?  

When I was with the Coast Guard, we used scenario planning both as a strategy development tool and as a training tool. This work – known internally as Project Long View and subsequently Project Evergreen – is described in greater detail in a Harvard Business Review article. This is how the mantra manage today plan tomorrow is described:

Long View and Evergreen weren’t designed to bring about a wholesale organizational shift from the operational to the strategic or to train the Coast Guard’s attention primarily on the long term.
Instead, the goal was to get its personnel thinking about the future in a way that would inform and improve their ability to operate in the present.
That was no small challenge. Management scholars have long noted that, in order to survive and thrive over time, organizations need to both exploit existing competencies and explore new ones. They need to be “ambidextrous.”
The problem is that those two imperatives compete for resources, demand distinct ways of thinking, and require different organizational structures. Doing one makes it harder to do the other. Ambidexterity requires managers to somehow resolve this paradox.
Long View and Evergreen helped the service’s leaders do that. The programs didn’t reduce the organization’s ability to attend to the present. If anything, the opposite occurred. Exploration enabled exploitation.

It reminds me of how the Incident Command System (ICS) approaches incident response.  One of the fundamental principles of ICS is to get ahead of the incident.  While responders are fighting the “fire” on the ground, command is working to build the plan for the next operational period (next 12 hours, next day, etc.).  Working on both “today” and “tomorrow” at the same time does not come easy and takes practice, but otherwise we are executing tactics without strategy, something Sun Tsu called “the noise before defeat.”

Those emergency responders have an ace up their sleeve, however.  Well before the fire, or oil spill, or hurricane, or whatever the incident de jour may be, full-time planners worked for months, maybe years, to build a plan to get the responders through that first few hours or day of the incident while the command puts together what to do next.  The CDC and public health entities presumably have plans to manage the opening stages of a pandemic (right?), but as a colleague pointed out to me, the rest of us do not: the small business, the corporation, the bank, local governments, or even, as we have discovered, the federal government.

So, command is now waist deep in the water along with the responders, sandbagging critical areas and placing families and soggy puppies into the boat to float them to safety. Very few are able to think about what to do when the flood waters recede, or especially what happens if they never do. Hundreds of thousands of years of sapient evolution have made us this way. 

But failing to think beyond the immediate crisis leaves us unnecessarily vulnerable. We have to find a way to manage today AND plan for tomorrow, lest our efforts become the noise before defeat.

Blog Sign-Up

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

1 thought on “Getting Ahead of the Incident”

  1. Nice piece, Joe. One of the
    Nice piece, Joe. One of the most challenging aspects of ‘thinking beyond the immediate crisis’ is imagining in an expansive and rigorous manner what that post-incident environment is going to look like. It’s not like this can be done in advance, because much if not everything changes because of the incident. The uncertainty this creates might lend itself to scenario thinking — that is, planning for not a single but multiple post-event environments, with appropriate contingency plans attached to each alternative endstate.


Leave a Comment