Where remote work is more and more the norm for companies around the world, it is easy to overlook one of the most foundational elements of managing a team: having a plan for when catastrophe strikes. In this sense, however, think less Day After Tomorrow meets 28 Days Later, and more of a Doctor Strangelove + Hackers crossover. If recent events in eastern Europe are any indication, our connected world amplifies the global effects (felt intimately by few) to levels previously unrealized.
Now, is that a little doom-and-gloom? Sure. But as history is quick to remind us: good prevails eventually over evil. As such, we owe it to ourselves and our teams to build plans to help us weather whatever storms we face in the moment, continue to innovate and solve hard problems, and emerge on the other side unscathed and undeterred.
Continuity of Operations (affectionately referred to as “COOP”) is a doctrine that, when planned thoroughly, allows for organizations and teams to maintain a certain level of function and operational capacity given a contingency event that meets a predetermined threshold. With the instability in eastern Europe, and the alarm bells ringing constantly in cyberspace, it seemed an appropriate time for Anno to develop a COOP plan of our own. Having been through similar planning events in the past, we dusted off our notebooks from lives-past and set to work (thanks, Putin).
Throughout the planning process, we kept a running tab of lessons learned and debriefed within our small COOP Planning Team some of the key takeaways from the sprint. A few are listed here, in no particular order, to hopefully inform and inspire your own planning event for your team.
Assign the Right People
To our benefit, we had several people on our team that had been through COOP planning events previously, along with other contingency operations planning experience from prior careers. This was a huge benefit to us, but understandably, most companies won’t have that luxury, and more than likely (as was the case with Anno), a lot of your teammates won’t have any experience in that field either. To that end, it’s incredibly important for the leadership team to identify the right people to lead this effort.
Seniority or title aside, it is critical that the COOP leadership be outside of the executive team and empowered to interact with every team within the organization. If any of your contingency criteria are met in real life, your executive leadership will have plenty on their plate. Identify your contingency operations team on merit and managerial capacity; it will pay dividends should the time arise where they are needed most.
Don’t Go Alone
“Two is one, and one is none.” A phrase that lives rent-free in the minds of many that have served in the military or intelligence community, they immediately came back to me as we sat down to draw up our plan. As tired as the words may be in certain circles, they aren’t without merit. Redundancy is paramount, both in people and assets.
Ideas generated in a vacuum rarely hold up to cross examination. Your COOP leadership should be a team — we had two people appointed to spearhead the effort, and I found that it was a great balance. Everything we did was in parallel, every communication to the broader team documented for the other. This confidence is critical; I had faith that if for whatever reason I was disconnected from this effort, my counterpart would not lose access or be out of touch with any work I was doing.
One option we exercised that worked phenomenally was a dedicated Slack channel for any COOP related planning or execution. That way, everyone had the opportunity to seize initiative where appropriate, but still keep the group abreast of the work they were doing. It was a great forum for feedback and discussion, and kept our team on the same page throughout an otherwise hectic exercise. If your organization doesn’t have a similar platform, find a means that works for you. Teams, MatterMost, or other services can provide the central communication and organization service that your team should leverage.
Physical redundancy is equally as important. Maintaining offline backups of critical software, assets, and workspaces is important, but if you only have one, you’re at risk of being in a compromising position should you lose access to it. Identifying individuals throughout the organization to maintain secure backups can help build in redundancy, and doesn’t require a ton of coordination. Should the COOP plan be activated, the leadership would have points of contact to restore workspaces to allow teams (and customers!) to continue working with no loss.
Build your PACE Plan
No need to break out the pedometer or stopwatch… “PACE” in this case is your plan for communications continuity. It stands for Primary, Alternate, Contingency, Emergency. Effectively, it builds in redundancy starting from your most common and data-rich communications platform, and works down to something that will reliably work in the event of an emergency, and all other options are exhausted.
This is going to be largely subjective to the industry and services that your company is involved with. For a small software company, leveraging services like Google Workspace or Microsoft Teams makes sense as a primary platform, and maybe a service like Slack for your alternate. Conversely, if you work in wildlife management or environmental services, your primary system might be a digital radio system, and your contingency might be a landline.
Point being, use what makes the most sense, and what platforms are ubiquitous to your team. There are plenty of services out there, and maintaining a shared set of prioritized platforms can keep your team on track if one becomes unavailable.
Continuity of Operations is not Disaster Recovery
Maintaining the scope of your plan is far easier said than done. Throughout the organization and planning process, we felt compelled to add more steps and procedures to ensure robustness. In retrospect, a lot of the churn and hours spent developing our plan were not specifically related to ensuring continuity, but rather along the lines of general emergency preparedness and security for our infrastructure.
Stick to your mission! Identify the critical systems that you need to keep online, and prioritize those functions. If there are concerns about data storage or integrity, implement plans to backup those data stores, along with a plan to bring them back online elsewhere. Keep in mind, your goal is to continue working through a contingency with as little disruption as possible.
Beyond critical systems, identify your team members that fill one-of-one positions. Is their work able to be assumed by someone else on the team? If not, coordinate with your department leads to find ways to split up tasks, or have internal training for the group, so that the team can keep working in the event that your subject matter expert is unavailable. All of the leadership within your organization should understand the impact of losing connectivity from any given individual, and how that would impact the ability to continue development and service of your product.
Inevitably, you will come across things that may not fit the COOP, but are still good practices that you may have been delaying, or that are new to you all together. This is a phenomenal exercise to identify those routine security and recovery functions that might be seriously helpful in the event of an emergency situation not specifically covered in your COOP planning process. Keep a running list of all of the processes you come across, and bring them into the fold after your COOP planning period is complete. Disaster recovery and data integrity policies are incredibly valuable as well, although separate from the COOP plan you generate.
In all, this was a tremendously valuable exercise for Anno. We identified gaps in our organization that would have impeded our ability to continue delivering quality products and services to our customers, and worked as a team to remedy those issues. We got a firm grasp on individuals serving in niche roles on our teams, and worked with their leadership to ensure that a contingency wouldn’t interrupt the workflow that they owned.
We also understand that this is a living document, as it should be. As we bring on more talent, our product develops, and our customer base grows, we recognize that it is imperative to revisit our COOP plan routinely in order to make sure that we can adapt to any situation we are faced with.
Don’t get caught up in planning for the worst. Take some time, and plan for the best!
About the Author: Max Goldwasser is the Director of Sensor Development on Anno.Ai’s Hardware Team. Max joined Anno.Ai in 2021 through the Department of Defense’s Skillbridge Program after a career in the US Navy as a Cryptologic Warfare Officer, delivering Signals Intelligence, Electronic Warfare, and Cyber expertise to Naval Special Warfare commands and the US TENTH Fleet domestically and abroad. Prior to his commissioned Naval service, Max attended the United States Naval Academy, where he earned a Bachelor’s of Science in Cyber Operations among the first cohort to
graduate with the degree. Max and his wife Megan currently live in Virginia Beach with their daughter, Murphy. In his spare time, he enjoys skydiving, woodworking, and weightlifting.