PlanB Consulting

26/09/2014 Can we learn about Business Continuity from the referendum

This week Charlie discusses the Scottish referendum results.

I have written about Scottish independence before, but thought I would revisit the topic now that the referendum has been and gone.

After a long and hard fought campaign, Scottish voters backed remaining in the union by 2,001,926 votes to 1,617,989.

The result has prompted a lot of questions about what direction the country should take, with many suggesting that all UK countries should be given more powers.

As well as questions there are of course lessons to be learned, particularly in terms of the management of the referendum, which are relevant to us as business continuity people:

1. The most obvious observation is that there was a major failure of risk management by David Cameron and his advisors. As he thought the pro-independence supporters were going to lose the vote (the opinion polls were roughly 70% ‘No’ and 30% ‘Yes’ at the time) he decided not to put ‘Devo Max’ on the ballot paper. This was probably the preferred option for the majority of people. He thought the vote would not shift much, the ‘No’ vote would win comfortably and he didn’t then need to give Scotland more powers. After he originally agreed to the wording of the question, the support for independence grew and as the vote drew closer it looked increasingly likely that independence would happen. It seemed like this possibility was not taken into account when the question was being agreed and the basis for the election was negotiated. If you take a risk and the odds seem to be stacked in your favour you have to consider what you are going to do if the odds seem to shift against you.

2. Two weeks before the poll, with the ‘Yes’ campaign looking increasingly strong, it seemed that there was no contingency plan in place. Momentum is very important in politics and it seemed to be firmly behind the ‘Yes’ vote. This caused the three party leaders to seemly panic and abandon Prime Minister’s question time in order to hot foot it to Scotland and passionately argue for the Union.  They pledged they would give extra powers to Scotland and said they would lay out a timetable for implementing the granting of these powers. To most people this seemed a panic measure and as though they had suddenly woke up to the fact that they might lose. Horizon scanning, as we should all be doing, and some local knowledge, might have told them that the passion for this debate was stirring in Scotland. The ‘Yes’ campaign had a very successful grassroots campaign which was turning many voters’ heads. Contingency plans and identifying the danger early on would have prevented the visit by the three leaders as being seen as a panic measure.

3. After an incident it is often said that organisations are never the same again. Pressures and the impact of the events have a lasting impact on the people who are involved. In Scotland this is most definitely the case. A whole section of people have been energised by the debate and want to pursue their goals of social justice and independence further. I was hearing on the radio that many people are in mourning as they genuinely felt that there was going to be a vote for independence, even if that was not what the opinion polls were telling them. The debate and the vote have changed Scotland. How this will manifest itself and the legacy of the referendum will become clear in the next few years. The important lesson for us is to learn that after an incident your organisation is likely to change and the change may be fundamental.

4. Lastly there is a very important lesson for incident communications from the event. During an incident people hear what they want to hear.  Anything which reinforces their point of view is listened to and they don’t hear the logically-reasoned counter argument. It seemed to me that certain sections of the ‘Yes’ campaign would only listen to facts which supported their own argument and blocked out any that disagreed with them. When all three parties said Scotland couldn’t continue to use the pound, their reaction was not to propose an alternative currency but to claim those saying this were bluffing. When a number of senior members of the EU said that Scotland would not automatically become part of the EU they again claimed that this was not true and quoted another source which said they would automatically become members. We need to recognise that people may think they are victims in an incident and blame your organisation. However much you say it is not your fault, they have set in their mind it was your organisation which caused it and they will not listen to any communications from you. Just because you put out a firm rebuttal with lots of reason why it is not your fault there is no guarantee that the ‘victims’ are listening. You may have to redouble your communications or use different methods and channels to reach them. You may just have to recognise that in the end they will always believe what they want to believe and that any communications may never change their mind!

We will see how the situation pans out over the next few months.

About Charlie Maclean-Bristol

Charlie Maclean-Bristol is one of the Founders and Directors of PlanB Consulting. He is also the Training Director of Business Continuity Training Ltd., a UK-based training provider accredited by the Business Continuity Institute. Charlie is a former Business Continuity Institute board member and one of the very few Fellows of both the Emergency Planning Society and the Business Continuity Institute.

A former Infantry Captain in the British Army, Charlie held several emergency planning, business continuity and crisis management positions within the energy and utility industry before founding PlanB Consulting in 2007. Over the past twelve years, Charlie has delivered business continuity consultancy in 6 of the worlds 7 continents, frequently providing full business continuity roll-outs to organisations of all sizes and in all sectors.

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