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Charlie looks at what business continuity lessons we can learn from the Battle of Arnhem, and how case studies are a great way of understanding incident management.

This week I have been on a battlefield tour of Arnhem; it was the Battle of Arnhem which was depicted in the film ‘A Bridge Too Far’. I am an ex King’s Own Scottish Borderer (KOSB), and our 7th Battalion was part of the force which landed by glider at Arnhem on the 17th September 1944. During the tour we visited the various battle sites, and were told what went on at each location. So, I thought I would discuss some lessons from the battle, which us business continuity practitioners can learn from.

The battle was full of courage, leadership and both good and bad decision-making, which are all qualities we are going to need when managing a major incident. When looking at the battle, there were five lessons I took away:

1. When operations were planned, one of the key assumptions was that the German forces’ morale was very low and so troops in the area would not put up much of a fight. However, they had failed to identify that there was a German SS Panzer Division refitting in the area. This means they were up against a much higher quality of troops than they had assumed and planned for. During an incident, we must keep questioning our assumptions and asking what if that assumption is not true.

2. In the early part of the battle, the KOSB had a series of different objectives and it was not clear which one was the most important. The most important was to cease the bridge at Arnhem and hold it until the relieving troops could get there. Time was wasted on subsidiary tasks, therefore enough troops didn’t make it to the bridge. During the response to an incident, an early objective for the strategic team should be defining what is the most important task. This is to ensure that all the different departments in the organisation are not working to different priorities. To help us define what our main effort should be, a good question to ask ourselves is; what does success look like? Defining the main effort should be part of the strategic team’s many tasks.

3. One of the tasks for the KOSB was to hold a landing site, so that heavy equipment such as jeeps and anti-tank guns, could be delivered by gliders. The equipment had to be unpacked quickly out of the gliders and taken to the British positions. In their way was a railway embankment which was too steep to take a vehicle across. Some equipment was taken through a very narrow culvert under the railway, but much of it was abandoned to the Germans. If the British had been more situationally aware, they would have known that half a mile away the embankment ended. They could have then taken the equipment easily across the railway line instead of under the culvert, which was very time-consuming and didn’t allow most of the heavy equipment to pass through. Situational awareness is extremely important when we teach incident management, and it allows those in charge of the incident to make the best decisions, as they have access to all relevant information available.

4. In the middle of the battle, the commander of all the airborne troops, Roy Urquhart, went missing for two days. He was almost captured by the Germans and had to hide in a loft before he could get back to his headquarters. There was some confusion who was next in the chain of command, and who was to oversee the troops in his absence. If during an incident the CEO is on a plane or on holiday and is uncontactable, is it clear in your organisation who steps up and takes their role?

5. One of the reasons the Germans won the battle was they were excellent at putting together ad hoc units and rapidly attacking their enemy, trying to defeat them before they had time to properly get organised. They didn’t wait for order from above, they recognised that something had to be done and just got on with it. In incidents if we can quickly organise ourselves to respond to the incident and put out communications, we can get in front of the incident and allow our organisation to be proactive, rather than reactive. In an incident we need someone to quickly take control of the response, whilst we get our business continuity organisation and teams in place.

Battlefield tours, and in a similar way, case studies, are a great way of understanding incident management and thinking about whether you would carry out the same actions as those who responded. What lessons can you learn from others to help enhance your own response?

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