Organisational suppleness

Growing the ability to react to the unexpected is a valuable skill.

“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless but planning is indispensable.”

Dwight D. Eisenhower

Much of this blog is about security – cybersecurity – in one way or another, but on occasion I do try to take a broader view. Cybersecurity is often modelled or described in military terms, talking about “fighting battles”, “wars of attrition” and “arms races” with “attackers”. These can be useful metaphors (and it’s why I started this article with a quote from a general), but there is a broader set of responsibilities that many of us in the sector need to consider, which is the continued (and hopefully healthy) functioning of our businesses and organisations. In particular, I like to talk about risk and how it relates not just to security, but to how businesses work and plan. One theme that I’ve visited before is that known or planned degradation of a service is often significantly better than failure, or even planned closure (see Service degradation: actually a good thing). My argument is that there are many occasions where keeping a service or business function running, albeit at reduced capacity, or with reductions in known capabilities, allows for better continuity than just stopping it.

Keeping a service running requires work. You can’t just hope that everything is installed and will run as you expect: what happens when your administrator is ill, your fibre-optic cable gets severed by a back hoe, or a DDoS attack is directed at you? You need to plan and practice what to do in these situations. What I’d like to explore in this article goes somewhat beyond the expectation of that planning in three directions. Let’s call them scenario coverage, muscle memory and organisational suppleness.

Scenario coverage

The first, and most obvious of the three directions, is about understanding eventualities. The more scenarios that we model and practice, the more we reduce our risk, simply because we have reduced the number of unknown eventualities in the probability space. There is a actually a side benefit to modelling lost of scenarios, which is that the more situations you consider, the more will come to mind. Every situation involves sets of choices or probabilities – “after the door closes, will it lock or not?” or “if the coolant fails, will the system turn off or burst into flames?” – and the more scenarios you consider, the more questions will arise. This can be daunting – and it’s almost impossible to consider every eventuality – but the more options are covered, the better your opportunities to mitigate the various risks they present.

Muscle memory

Muscle memory is what comes with training and practice. Assuming that you are including your teams in the scenario planning

And I’m assuming here that the planning isn’t solely a paper exercise. Theoretical planning, while useful, only goes so far, for a couple of important reasons:

  • systems will always fails in unexpected ways
  • people will do unexpected things.

What the first of these means is that however much you assume that your back-up generator will kick in if there’s a power outage, until you test it, you can’t be sure that it will. The second of these relates to the fact that however much you tell people what to do, when it actually comes to the doing of it, they’re unlikely to as you expect. This is likely to be even worse if there’s been no training, and you’re just assuming that person X will know how to operate a fire extinguisher, or that team Y will, of course, exit the building in an orderly manner via exit Z (rather than find fourteen different exits, or not even leave the building at all).

For both of these reasons, getting people together to work through possible scenarios, and then, where possible, actually practising what to do, means that you have a higher assurance that when one of the situations you’ve considered does arrive, that they will know what to do, and act as you expect.

Organisational suppleness

While you cannot, as we’ve noted, plan for every eventuality or know exactly how an employee or team will react when things go wrong, there is another benefit to involving a broad group of people in your scenario planning and training. This is that their very involvement gives them practice in dealing with uncertainty, working out how they will react, and giving them experience in how those around them will act. While I may not know exactly what to do if the payroll system goes down an hour before it is due to run, if I have worked with colleagues on scenarios where the sales processing system fails, I’ve got a better chance of making some sensible choices about who to contact, initial steps to take and information to collect than if this is the first time I’ve ever seen anything like it. Likewise, we may not have modelled our response to a physical failure of one of our network links, but our shared experience of practising our response to a DDoS attack means that we have an idea of what to do.

And it is not just having an idea of what to do that is important, but also having gathered and practised the cognitive skills associated with investigating failures, collating data, sharing information and working with others to ameliorate the situation which allows a team or an organisation to respond better to new, maybe unexpected situations. We can think of this as suppleness, as it means that rather than just failing, or cracking, an organisation can react as a tree does to strong winds, or a gymnast does to a new exercise. Growing the ability to react to the unexpected is a valuable skill for an organisation, and knowing that it is supple allows its leaders to plan with more certainty and mitigate more risk.

Author: Mike Bursell

Long-time Open Source and Linux bod, distributed systems security, etc.. Now employed by Red Hat. マイク・バーゼル: オープンソースとLinuxに長く従事。他にも分散セキュリティシステムなども手がける。現在Red Hatのチーフセキュリティアーキテクト

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