For too many managers, “crisis” is often perceived or treated as a sign of failure or mismanagement, to be countered with some sort of spin doctoring.
Crisis, to them, is an operational condition to be shunned, ignored, or at best subsumed by the ever-present and more visible demands of their daily work. Those demands are important and exact a controlling pull on managers’ time, attention span and effort. Nevertheless, by concentrating on the more common functions of their operation these managers ignore a spectrum of possible (or even likely) occurrences, which could cause them the greatest grief.
Crises are abnormal and unique events, which occur with some degree of surprise (in their nature, timing or frequency) to demand unusual, extensive, taxing and multi-jurisdictional response efforts. Crises are different from emergency or disaster situations. The latter situations typically involve an identified agent or trigger (e.g., nature driven, technological failure or human induced), a relatively focused objective (i.e., rescue, safety or containment), and a concerted effort by assorted agency-stakeholders that partner to address what they see is the immediate or tactical need. By comparison, crises are more complex and command a more strategic view.
Crises are more likely to have ill-defined triggers or agents. This condition generates a higher level of uncertainty, and represents a more complex set of cause-effect-solution combinations. Because of the inherent uncertainty over the nature of the crisis (and its remedy), stakeholders are also more likely to disagree over the operational objective of the response effort. By necessity, crisis management is often focused on strategic, long-range or meta-structure issues.
The most significant goal of crisis management is to return the affected organization or community to its normal state. “Normal state” is the set of generally predictable patterns (or standards) of behaviour through which an entity guides its existence. Collectively, these patterns provide its members with routines that in turn provide them predictability and a sense of control over their lives. During “normal” times, the members of organizations and communities generally have strong expectations regarding what will happen today, tomorrow or even next year. In a crisis, that level of predictability and its related sense of comfort or confidence are gone.
Given that crises are life-altering events for both individuals and organizations, the return to normal does not mean a return to exactly the way things were before the event. Nevertheless, the desired target is the return to some sort of normalcy. But what is it, and how does one get there?
Unfortunately, many individuals who confront crises, particularly at the organizational or communal level, are unclear or misinformed about the composition and requirements of such events. In their effort to manage their crisis event they erroneously revert to the same paradigm they use for their day-to-day operations. Consequently, their effort – before and during a crisis – produces inappropriate or delayed response, unnecessary collateral damage, escalated costs, and increased liability.
The good news is that crises can be prevented. In fact, organizations and communities are well advised to undertake mitigating actions aimed at reducing the likelihood of crises, and minimizing their potential impact. The most significant action to mitigate crisis, by far, is the promotion of a healthy operational culture that accepts crises as an integral part of living, and doing business. Such a culture recognizes that everything is prone to failure, and not necessarily as a result of negligence or mismanagement. It also promotes an operational milieu where organizational members are encouraged to identify impending crises, and commended for surfacing their concerns and taking corrective action in anticipation of such events.
Among the obvious corrective actions are the steps taken to remedy structure or system deterioration, correct identified errors, or fix process failures. Less obvious, but equally important, are the actions taken to ensure viable processes for the management of crises, regardless of their nature. This is crisis management at its best.
Crisis management strives to restore predictability. It requires the management of four important facets of the crisis environment: chaos, uncertainty, perception, and time.
§ The management of chaos involves the coordination of information, resources, and activities to ensure the most appropriate, timely and efficient use of these valuable elements of the operation.
§ The management of uncertainty strives to provide greater accuracy, integrity, and meaning regarding the event.
§ The management of perception allows the affected organization to mould, develop or coach the perception (and related emotions) of the public and key stakeholders regarding the event and its consequences.
§ The management of time addresses the need for urgency and the managing of countless competing priorities that are inherent to crises.
One of the main causes for the failure of crisis management is that it is applied within traditional management and organizational behaviour concepts. These are the wrong paradigms for crisis management.
Recall that organizations (e.g., groups, corporations or communities) may fall into crisis at various speeds: from fast (e.g., following devastating media coverage) to slow (e.g., small incremental steps that erode confidence leading to failure). The results are nevertheless similar. Crises move affected organizations into a parallel reality. On the one hand they must continue their routine existence with its related activities, processes, outputs and life-patterns. On the other hand, they must respond immediately under adverse conditions where uncertainty and chaos are closely coupled. To make matters worse, the crisis environment is likely to evolve (at least initially) both rapidly and unpredictably.
Crisis management demands that the affected organization or community reach beyond its own boundary or jurisdiction and work with others in a unique one-off environment, to address the problem at hand. This requirement contradicts the traditional nature of organizations, and demands a new and creative operational paradigm. Out-of-box thinking is a must because the old rigid paradigm is unworkable in a crisis.
At the heart of the new paradigm is the old view of organizations as individual entities, each with its own life force and a commitment to sustain its existence at all costs. Accordingly, organizations exist, survive and grow by establishing a unique identity, and sustaining their independence by first establishing and then promoting their own culture, language, practices, operational venue, and staff members. Organizations (and communities) define or mark all that is theirs through logo and other branding, uniforms and language (including government terminology). Even when their operations require them to be mobile (e.g., employees who travel on business), organizations still clearly identify their “turf” through marks on their vehicles, sub-offices, products or personnel.
A reasonable view of organizations is as a series of boxes – gear boxes. Each has its own boundary