Editor's Note: This is a guest post contribution. Author bylines and information are found at the end of the post. To learn more about submitting guest content to the MeetingPlay Blog email Lori.E@meetingplay.com
When 100 million people watched the lights go out at Super Bowl XLVII, you would have expected our response at the Superdome to have been immediate. It wasn’t. It had started months before, when we were planning how to deal with the worst possible outcomes.
The importance of visualizing disasters
Developing contingency plans to protect our businesses, brands, and projects against the most dreadful possibilities requires a vividly dark imagination. Visualizing success is not enough. Having the right planning and management tools is a great start. But, we have to also step back and visualize disasters a long time before they happen. Only then can you create a truly representative portfolio of contingency plans, and that’s as true for managing meetings and our businesses as it is for staging a sports event.
I was the Senior Vice President of Events for the NFL when, as Armen Keteyian reported on 60 Minutes Sports, “a blowout became a blackout.” It was up to our team to either get the game going again or to manage the unthinkable – a Super Bowl that could not be completed. What Keteyian also said was that although there was an air of uncertainty among the event management team, there were no signs of panic. He should know. He and I were in the middle of an interview at the very moment I most needed a change of underwear. Within seconds, we forgot about him and the cameras, and set the recovery in motion.
Planning for anything that could happen
Our team had imagined a lot of potential problems and prepared contingencies to deal with them, but a blackout wasn’t one of them. That might seem to be a lousy place to start because we hadn’t prepared for everything that could happen. We did, however, prepare for anything. We knew long before we arrived at the Superdome that morning that something, somewhere would go wrong at a project as complex as the Super Bowl. With millions of details to plan for to attend to, something always did. Most often, they were largely unnoticed blips and blunders. Occasionally, they were more than a little noticeable.
To inoculate us against the very worst, we held a table-top exercise the week before every Super Bowl I managed. We hired a facilitator who was familiar with our plans and sealed everyone who would be making game-day decisions in a room for four hours while he poked holes in them, presenting us with detailed scenarios ranging from mild disappointment to full-out disaster. Our job during the table-top was to work as a team to solve or manage those problems in real time. In the process, we patched the holes in our planning, developed new contingencies, reinforced our decision-making process, and built trust and confidence among our team members. Over time, we established a rhythm and common approach to how we solved problems and made decisions as a team. By Super Bowl XLVII, we had conducted this annual exercise 8 times, so when the lights went out at the Superdome, we returned to the problem-solving drill we had simulated the week before: what’s the problem, what’s the first thing we have to do, and what’s the path to a solution? You can watch our response to the opening minutes of the blackout in this CBS Morning News clip.
What to do when things go wrong
The symptom was instantaneously obvious in the dark of our control room: no power. The cause would a little while longer to figure out. The first thing to do, however, was to avoid panic by communicating to the 74,000 people in the seats. We knew to do that because we had rehearsed it as a response that was common to many potential crises. Were we anxious? I’d be lying if I said we weren’t. But, panicked? No. We were managing our recovery without the paralysis of panic because even though we didn’t have a plan that covered everything, we had one that was good for anything.
Learn more about imagining and planning to avoid disasters, and managing when they happen anyway, in my newest book, What to Do When Things Go Wrong, available from McGraw-Hill on Kindle and at book retailers. Order your copy here!
About Frank Supovitz
For more than 25 years, Frank Supovitz has been at the helm of some of the world’s most prestigious, widely-viewed, and well-attended sports and entertainment events. As the Senior Vice President of Events for the National Football League between 2005 and 2014, he oversaw the meteoric growth of the Super Bowl and the NFL Draft, and American football games in London. Prior to joining the NFL, Frank led the National Hockey League’s event group for 13 years, responsible for the NHL All-Star Weekend and Stanley Cup. Together with the Edmonton Oilers, he developed the first NHL outdoor game in 2003, the forerunner to the highly successful NHL Winter Classic.
Supovitz founded Fast Traffic in 2014, serving a wide range of sports and entertainment clients. Fast Traffic was part of the development team for the Rooftop at Pier 17 at the South Street Seaport in New York City, winner of the Pollstar Award for Best New Concert Venue of 2018. Frank is also the co-producer with Indianapolis Motor Speedway of the pre-race show for the Indy 500, which was honored as Best Sports Event of 2016 by Sports Business Journal. Recent Fast Traffic clients also include the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Major League Soccer, the Big East Conference, the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks, and the National Rugby League in Australia.
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