Are Near Misses a Prelude to a Catastrophe?

The April 2011 edition of Harvard Business Review was dedicated to “Failure” and “How to Understand It”, “Learn From It” and “Recover from It”.

In the article “How to Avoid Catastrophe”, authored by Catherine Tinsley, Robin Dillon and Peter Madsen the authors noted that “Near misses preceded every disaster they studied and most were ignored”.  Examples of events include JetBlue and the Winter Storms, Apple and the iPhone, Toyota and their Pedal Problems, and the Space Shuttle Challenger.

So how can we apply this thinking to the BCP world?

How many times have near misses been averted at your organization but no-one has attempted to determine what the root cause was and / or who was accountable for the near miss?

What were the symptoms that preceded the near miss that should have been identified before the event occurred?  What worst case scenarios could have come to pass but were narrowly averted?

Our job as BCP professionals is to look out for those near misses that could turn out to be our worst nightmare.
If your organization narrowly avoids a 100 year flood, should you overlook and not consider what the worst case scenario could have been?  Or, what if your data center has a backup generator failure along with the failure of the UPS  that was preceded by a couple of near misses in the backup generator?  Or, if you have sites that have narrowly avoided hurricanes, maybe you should take this as a sign that we should heavily pre-plan for a worst case scenario.  Our luck will run out over time, thats a fact.

The authors noted that seven strategies can help managers recognize and learn from near misses:

  1. They should be on increased alert when time or cost pressures are high.
  2. Watch for deviations in operations from their norm and uncover their root cause.
  3. Make decision makers accountable for near misses.
  4. Envision worst case scenarios.
  5. Evaluate projects at every stage.
  6. Be on the look out for near-misses masquerading as successes.
  7. Reward staff for exposing near misses.

I was at one of our utility clients who is continually focused on preparing staff across the company for crisis and I noticed a poster that said “Don’t Fall into the Near Miss Syndrome”- Just because you managed to make it through the near miss, don’t believe you will make it again!”  Identify the root cause and protect yourself, your fellow associates and the company.

I believe we need to use this methodology at our organizations to minimize the potential for catastrophic situations that will critically impact people, resources and the ability to continue critical operations.

  I would highly recommend the April 2011 issue of Harvard Business Review as its contents apply to BCP and all we do.

About MHA: MHA Consulting, with its decade-long track record, is a proven leader in business continuity planning, disaster recovery planning, IT best practices and data center moves and relocations. Every day, MHA helps protect trillions of dollars of global-market assets and top companies around the world rely on MHA services for the continuity of their business. For more information on MHA, contact Michael Herrera at herrera at mha-it dot com or visit

Michael Herrera is the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of MHA. In his role, Michael provides global leadership to the entire set of industry practices and horizontal capabilities within MHA. Under his leadership, MHA has become a leading provider of Business Continuity and Disaster Recovery services to organizations on a global level. He is also the founder of BCMMETRICS, a leading cloud based tool designed to assess business continuity compliance and residual risk. Michael is a well-known and sought after speaker on Business Continuity issues at local and national contingency planner chapter meetings and conferences. Prior to founding MHA, he was a Regional VP for Bank of America, where he was responsible for Business Continuity across the southwest region.

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