Business, Interrupted: Drawing on Real-Life Disaster Response with Larry Knafo


Business as usual. It’s a catchphrase many of us have used, especially business continuity professionals who have successfully conquered the latest disruption or disaster and played a key role in leading an organization to a return to normal.

But post COVID-19, what exactly is “business as usual” and how has it shaped what that means for continuity and resilience professionals around the globe?

If anyone understands exactly what that means when a disaster forever changes how we define “business as usual,” it’s Larry Knafo, former New York City Deputy CIO during the September 11 , 2001 attacks.

We recently chatted with Knafo in our inaugural Leaders episode of Castellan’s newest podcast, “Business Interrupted,” hosted by Cheyene Marling, Managing Director of BC Management.

Faced with unbelievable—and potentially crippling obstacles—Knafo has leaned on lessons learned from one of America’s most devastating events that directly and indirectly shaped the next two decades of his career. His experiences are among the many that organizations can draw from in our “new normal” in this post-pandemic world.

“Every crisis I’ve faced has been different,” Knafo explains. “In some cases, there’s a plan in place and other cases there’s just no plan. 9/11 was one of those times where nobody expected anything like that.”

Long-Lasting Impacts of Large-Scale Disasters

For Knafo, 9/11 will forever be marked in his personal and professional timeline.

“It’s hard to believe it’s been 20 years, and that was certainly a pivotal point in my career,” he said, adding, with reflection, “it’s honestly a bit hard to talk about that as something that’s part of your career because there were so many people impacted by 9/11. I lost friends and colleagues, so I hate to think of that as a career moment. But there were a lot of things that I learned through that experience—and many people that I worked with learned—and that we certainly took with us through the rest of our career to help.”

Ultimately, 9/11 became about a mission, a common purpose for all those who experienced it.

And among many professional lessons learned along the way was understanding sometimes, regardless of all of our pre-work, planning, testing, and exercises, we can face those Black Swans, where there just isn’t a plan or the plans we thought we got right, just don’t work.

During the crisis, Knafo and his team had business continuity and disaster response to guide them, but in the end, it was all about adaptivity— using what you know—your experience and the people, tools, resources, and technologies to get things done.

While most organizations may never face an event of September 11th’s magnitude, COVID shows us that regardless of size or industry, our old definition of “business as usual” has changed, and it’s challenged now daily. In light of that is an important lesson—we must be ready for whatever comes next. And for many organizations, while not at the same scale of 9/11, pandemic response is fueling lessons-learned for what comes next.

“I could argue that we had pandemic plans in place, but I’d also say that the minute COVID started, those plans were kind of pushed to the side or almost needed to be completely re-assessed and enhanced to meet the challenges that we were facing,” Knafo said. “So I think, just being agile and flexible and able to fully assess what’s happening and prioritize on what’s critical—what really needs to get dealt with—because there’s a lot of ways to get distracted during a crisis.”

Regardless of scale, what’s important during crisis response?

  • Understand the key things you need accomplish
  • Use your plans, goals, and objectives to bring people together
  • Unite for a common mission
  • Be flexible and agile

The COVID Connection

Like 9/11, one of the most important lessons Knafo draws on from COVID response is that the pandemic highlighted for many organizations that “we don’t know what we don’t know.”

Assumptions play a role in all business continuity and disaster response plans, but those assumptions—as we learn during an actual crisis—aren’t always right. Often, they’re flat out wrong. But that doesn’t mean we have to throw our hands up in defeat. Instead, we can use what we learn from those incorrect assumptions to build stronger programs and plans and improve our testing and exercise processes.

I think what we really realized was we are sometimes less in control of our destiny than we might like to acknowledge,” Knafo said.

That’s a long way from where most organizations were more than a year ago, where many, even those with solid pandemic response plans, thought after a few weeks, we’d return to our business as usual.

But what we have experienced, like the many events that have helped shape Knafo’s career over the last 20 years, are those incorrect assumptions and other challenges during crisis management are opportunities to get better at what we do. It’s about taking chances, understanding risks, and thinking outside the box for response and recovery.

And to remember you’re not alone in this.

Finding Purpose

Business continuity, disaster response, and true operational resilience are a team effort. It’s about working together for a common goal and always improving.

During 9/11, for Knafo and his team, it was that common mission he mentioned.

“There were just things that we needed to do. Nobody was sitting and thinking about their career, but I think that’s actually really important, right, because we had purpose,” he said. “One thing that I walked away from 9/11 and that I’ve carried with me my whole career is—you have to have a career or a job that has purpose. If you don’t, you’ve got a job, right?”

“You have purpose in what you do. You have a career, you have something that you love, something that you care about, something that’s more than just going in and clocking in at 9 and leaving at 5 p.m.

Further reflecting on his experiences and that journey for purpose, Knafo notes the importance of finding a mentor on this journey.

“I’ve had some great mentors in my career and some of them are good friends to this day. Knowing who those people are and finding them and finding a way to get in front of them and have them accept you and help them is something that everybody should be doing,” he said.

As for advice for other professionals, Knafo says, “I would say, take some risks, right? And look for those opportunities and also constantly learn. Figure out where your industry is going and how you stay up to speed with it. How you get ahead. Those are all critical. And you don’t want to just be passed by an industry, by an expertise. You want us to stay up to date.”

And while events like 9/11, the pandemic, or other memorable disruptions or disasters may forever impact—both positively and negatively—how we move forward in life personally and professionally, they continue to be opportunities from which we can learn and grow.

Take opportunities as you get them,” Knafo explains. “Don’t be afraid of a challenge. You only grow when you challenge yourself and you’re not going to be successful every time, but that shouldn’t let people stop trying. Even from failure, you come out with something, learning something, finding a better way to do things. But even with success, you have to be careful that just because you were successful at something one time, and you try to do something else the next time, it doesn’t mean you’re going to be successful.”

But never stop giving it your all, Knafo encourages.

“You need to be really committed and focused and have an understanding of what you’re doing, what the people around you are doing, and build networks where you will have people that will support you and help you. I can’t think of anything in my career that I’ve done that was completely on my own that mattered. Everything that I’ve done of consequence involved lots of other people who were either supporting me, guiding me, alongside with me, and we did things as a team. There really is no pure individual contributor anymore. That’s just not a thing that is scalable.”

Want to hear more about Knafo’s experiences and how you can apply lessons learned in crisis management to your business continuity and disaster response planning? To get more insights and resources, listen to Business, Interrupted, Episode 1: Ground Zero: Leadership Lessons from 9/11 with Larry Knafo or wherever you get your favorite podcasts.

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