Over the last few years, companies have taken major steps to get their crisis preparedness house(s) in order. For instance, the 2016 Institute of Crisis Management (ICM) Annual Crisis Report found that only half of all global organizations had crisis management plans in place. Fast forward to this year, when Deloitte released the findings of its global survey of 500 crisis management executives. That study, “Stronger, fitter, better: Crisis management for the resilient enterprise,” showed that no less than 84 percent of companies had crisis management plans in place. Not the same sample set, to be sure, but still a major jump in crisis management preparedness. But though companies seem to have cottoned on completely to the crisis threat, they’re not out of the woods quite yet. That’s because the reality of crisis is completely different than the ersatz version you’ll find in crisis plans and simulations.
Look, I’m not knocking plans and simulations. They’re absolutely crucial to achieving crisis preparedness; they’re just not sufficient. The fact is when crisis strikes, it moves fast, really fast. Teams and individuals have to make swift decisions in an innately high-stakes environment. Add to that: acute levels of stress, a high degree of scrutiny, limited amounts of high-quality intelligence, and (potentially) surfeits of extraneous information. When else do people have to make decisions in those kinds of conditions?
The answer is never. Crises are singular events, after all. Yet the very fact that crises are so distinct rarely alters how crisis leaders coach and model crisis decision making to their teams. Simply put, too often, crisis leaders just reflexively import routine decision-making frameworks into the crisis scenario.
That’s a big mistake. The routine decision making of everyday business is learned by low-stakes trial and error and gets reproduced in similar conditions. What’s more, most decision-making frameworks assume time is plentiful, which, then, allows the decision maker to gather intelligence methodically until the decision is taken, implemented, and reviewed.
Obviously, there’s a lot to that very linear approach that can (and does) strengthen crisis decision making. But there’s a lot more that’s simply not suitable, starting with the crucial assumptions underpinning routine decision making, bountiful time and a ready supply of high-quality sources of information, which are entirely lacking in the crisis situation.
In other words, the linear framing of routine decision making doesn’t always work in crisis, the latter being more akin to imposing order on a fundamental chaos than it is to solving a routine business problem. That’s why scholars like Mark Leigh of the Emergency Planning College at the UCL Institute for Risk & Disaster Reduction have suggested we ditch inadequate, even deleterious, decision-making frameworks in favor of models that are intuitive as well as “reflective, analytical and structured.”
The principal heuristic, or problem-solving method, Leigh proposes is critical thinking inflected for the crisis situation. In it, crisis actors have to reflect on the meaning and implications of the information they receive, since much of it will be countervailing. They also have to be prepared to accept and synthesize a multiplicity of perspectives. And they must remain particularly attuned to the cognitive biases that too often crop up in the crisis situation, i.e. over-valuing one’s own experience, excessive loss aversion, privileging recent events, etc.
Finally, achieving a more accurate, nuanced understanding of crisis so as to make better crisis decisions isn’t like flipping a light switch-if only it were. Crisis leaders will need to do the hard work of learning these new cognitive practices, essentially re-wiring their brains to search for appropriate patterns, acknowledging, sharing, and challenging assumptions, as well as standing guard against group-think. And that’s even before they begin the sustained work of modelling those new techniques to their teams and running simulations in crisis-like (time-attenuated) conditions.
If that sounds like a lot, it is. But crisis leaders shouldn’t feel debilitated. Instead, leaders ought to remember that their teams wield an innate set of strengths, namely their own perspectives and experiences. It’s that diversity of thought that’s absolutely central to effective crisis decision making.
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