Then came one of the worst. On January 29, 1986, the Challenger—a space shuttle built and maintained by Rockwell—blew apart a little more than a minute into its tenth launch, killing all seven crew members aboard. Deasy had experienced his fair share of issues by then, but the scale of the tragedy played a significant role in his development as a leader.
“It’s very different when the role that technology may or may not have played in the problem is not clear,” Deasy said. “In those situations, we have to deal with a whole different set of problems.”
Later, at Tyco International, Deasy was part of the new leadership team brought in after top executives were convicted of larceny and fraud, and at a time when the company faced serious financial, operational and morale issues. Granted, this was a crisis of a different scale, but it was a crisis all the same. “At that time, it was about, how do I get people to work together on technology when they hadn’t worked together before?” Deasy said. “It was definitely a stress-filled time where you needed to help sort out the company in a hurry.”
Then there was BP. In April 2010, about halfway through his six-year tenure as CIO at the global oil giant, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill occurred. Deasy declined to comment specifically on that incident, but he said that the advice he provides below was influenced by that experience.
Reflecting on these and other crises he has experienced, Deasy focused on a simple truth: “There was no playbook for the day the oil spill occurred,” Deasy said. “There was no playbook for the day the Challenger happened.”
Spotting the warning signs
When people ask Deasy what keeps him up at night, he points to balance. CIOs are constantly moving from issue to issue—be it focusing on innovation, managing operations, mitigating risk, making critical decisions about staff, dealing with regulatory issues, and so on.
CIOs, he said, need to juggle all of those balls in the air, paying close attention to all factors to anticipate when problems might arise, and “looking around corners” to recognize new opportunities or threats. “I think any good CIO today has to have an early radar system that hopefully lets them know when one of those things is starting to become problematic, or to see signs where things are starting to break around you,” he said.
Deasy also said that tabletop simulations are helpful for preparing for crises, but only to a certain extent. “I always tell people, if you get overly confident that your desktop exercises are going to see you through a unique crisis, then you will be woefully unprepared to deal with it,” Deasy said.
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