Lessons From Hawaii’s Missile Alert Fail

I can say that I’ve accidentally hit the “send” button prematurely on an “all-employee” email. While I felt it was a mistake of catastrophic proportions, that doesn’t come close to the impact of the mistaken missile alert message sent to Hawaiian residents!

It appears there were some systemic issues with the alert system, but human error did trigger the communication. Clearly, the message had huge personal impacts to everyone on the island and their loved ones. However, it does bring to light the gaps in preparation and ability to respond positively should this be a real event. I suppose the one upside is that there is a heightened awareness of what details need to be defined and communicated to the affected population.

This unfortunate event got me thinking – what other lessons can we learn and apply?

  • Build in some redundancy or checks & balances to your process – We all want to deliver high-quality results, so don’t allow a  process or system get in the way of accuracy and quality. In the Missile notification, the operator had to select the message that goes to the entire population of Hawaii using a drop-down menu. Are you kidding me? How easy is it to accidentally select the wrong choice…especially when it’s just above or below the intended choice.  When the stakes are high, it’s even more important that steps are built into the process that requires verification by another person – even proofreading. A step that requires some special effort or extra thinking before “hitting send” can cause a pause to pay attention and verify the action. In that spirit, I recommend taking a minute to audit your processes or systems and if there is a gap in some redundancy or checks and balances, build them in and ensure everyone involved understands the change.
  • Always have a Plan B and risk mitigation strategy – Regardless of your planning efforts, things can and will go wrong. Thinking through the risk factors and developing alternative plans does two things. First, it prompts you to go to a deeper level of detail and allow you to add-in necessary steps. Second, it will save time and effort should your initial plans fail. When in crisis mode, it can be hard to think clearly, and if you have a Plan B outlined, you can simply swing into action to execute.
  • Advocate for After Action Review and continuous improvement efforts – The pace at which we work these days is fast, with little time catch your breath and reflect. Because business demands often push us on to the next big thing, it takes discipline to pull the right players together for yet another meeting to review how a project/plan was executed and have an honest dialogue to identify what to do differently next time. This is commonly known as an After Action Review session. The idea is to objectively look at all phases of the work and determine what to START doing, STOP doing or CONTINUE doing going forward. It is an extremely valuable process and can save time, money, and effort for the next team of people faced with similar projects or work. It’s a great way to pass on lessons learned, so the same mistakes/issues don’t happen again.

I certainly don’t wish mishaps like this on anyone, but they will happen, and when they do, I’m a big believer in looking for what good can come from that bad experience.

What lessons have you learned from a fail? I’d love to hear and learn from you!

Martha Duesterhoft is a Partner with PeopleResults. Follow her on Twitter @mduesterhoft or connect via email at mduesterhoft@people-results.com.

Martha Duesterhoft