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You’ve no doubt heard about the cargo ship that struck the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore last month, causing nearly the entire structure to collapse instantly. As of this writing, the cause is still not entirely clear.

Apparently, the accident was not the result of one major thing. In fact, it seems the likely suspects in an event of this magnitude did not play a role at all: The ship had recently been inspected with no identified issues; the local pilots were well trained and apparently experts in the specific harbor; the ship was only traveling at about 8 knots (9 miles per hour).

Instead, the fact that the accident was not prevented seems to be the result of a number of factors that were put in motion long ago:

  • The bridge was built in the late 1970s using a design that had no redundancies to compensate for loss of support in any section.
  • At the time of the bridge’s construction, cargo ships were much smaller; support protections were less robust.
  • The port did not require tugboats as escorts past the bridge while leaving the harbor.

None of these factors, alone, would have resulted in the tragedy — there was no “single point of failure.” But when put together, it’s clear that over time, the bridge became increasingly vulnerable.

Single points of failure can impact a business as well, whether in the form of a cyberattack, natural disaster, competitive shift, or some other significant event with existential consequences. And, while not all of these are defensible, smart businesspeople tend to anticipate and plan for them as best they can.

What is often missed, however, and as occurred in the case of the bridge collapse, are the small decisions that act in unison and whose threat is hard to see until it’s too late. They leave you vulnerable to issues that can add up to big, possibly catastrophic, events, often months — or years — down the road.

With that in mind, here are some areas to consider as you evaluate your own operation…

Technology Changes

The problem with both software and hardware is that it often runs just fine — until it doesn’t. At that point, a lack of updated security and support can add up to big problems.

One client of mine, for example, in an effort to save money, stopped updating staff computers over the years. When Microsoft finally stopped supporting Windows XP, the client found itself with a LOT of machines in need of replacement in a very short amount of time. In addition to the unplanned expense, by running outdated technology, the company was at greater risk of attack by bad actors.

Waiting until tech upgrades are absolutely necessary limits your options and can have negative impacts, both financially and operationally.

Organizational Changes

During the early, prefunding days of the Internet start-up I cofounded, my partner Patrick and I were in constant communication. So much so that we often finished each other’s sentences. Even when we received funding and staff size grew quickly, our informal means of communication still worked just fine.

Eventually, however, when we had multiple people in multiple states, our earlier approach no longer worked. It simply didn’t scale; we had to develop a more structured approach to communication or risk wasted effort, if not large mistakes.

For most organizations, the processes that got things started don’t carry through subsequent stages effectively. Left unattended, it’s easy to outgrow previously useful methods.

Generational Changes

As the workplace becomes more diverse — whether racially, ethnically, generationally, or some combination — companies need to reevaluate many of the approaches and assumptions they have long relied on.

For example, as a Baby Boomer, my career evolved with certain expectations, such as the assumption that most employees were planning to work their way “up the ladder” and stay for the long haul.

These days, however, younger generations are seeking greater meaning and work that “makes a difference.” They are much more “me-centered” and less likely to stick around if they don’t see their needs being met.

Companies that fail to evolve to meet these expectations may find themselves increasingly less attractive to potential job candidates and current staff.


Policies and procedures — for companies of any size — help streamline and simplify our work, allowing us to focus on the bigger picture. However, there is a real risk when relying on a “set and forget” approach, even regarding seemingly small decisions and processes.

Some changes emerge gradually (the size of shipping vessels didn’t double overnight), while others by themselves are not large enough to capture anyone’s attention amidst the swirl of greater priorities.

The solution lies in revisiting your strategy at least every 2 to 3 years and considering “how we do things around here” in a comprehensive way more regularly. As changes in the economy, your competitive environment, or new technologies occur, it’s important to consider their implications with a fresh eye.

It’s not easy — it’s hard to see what you don’t see or to anticipate future implications of what seem to be small current decisions. But as I suspect the residents of Baltimore would be quick to acknowledge, it is very much worth the time and effort.


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