Popular crisis management theories often advocate for stakeholder engagement during times of crises. For those who have witnessed or experienced first-hand work-place crises, they can attest that this approach is rubbish; working via consensus in a crisis doesn’t work in real-life.
By Joseph Smith
Let’s cut straight to the collar; to effectively manage a crisis, throw out the management by consensus theory and its likes, and replace it with a command and control structure. This is the most efficient and effective means of getting through the other end of a crisis with your brand intact.
While management literature and studies on effective management strategies during the normal course of work are all helpful, very little attention is given to what is most effective in times of a crisis when the stakes are high and people are under extreme emotional stress. We may have seen excellent fair weather managers slink off and hide in the shadows when a true crisis occurs or brilliant colleagues act like neutered dogs, ordinarily brash men cry and calm ladies turn shrill.
When the troop’s hearts fail, people seek out leadership. This is why the command and control structure is so effective in a high stakes crisis. Interestingly, this doesn’t always follow the chain of a corporate structure. It lies with the person who first shows initiative and takes charge and for good reason; the truth is, most people don’t want to be so visibly held to account if the crisis gets out of control. What we have then, is a power void – and for the brave, a crisis just may be the opportunity to fill it.
Attacking a crisis like a barbarian horde running across the battle field sometimes works but if the crisis is going to be extended over a period of time, adopting a more military, tactical approach requires a highly visible, methodical and steadfast leader. In real-life, crisis management requires the ability to get situational awareness, create makeshift track and measure systems and establish communications through a chain of command. While stakeholder communication is important, it typically has to be unidirectional.
When dealing with a crisis that involves a customer, it can sometimes be like the Crying Game; once your client knows what you’re hiding under your skirt, there’s no point hiding anymore. Trying to project an image of ‘all is well on the western front’ is all fine in a peace-time situation, but in a crisis, brutal honesty with your client is the only option. If they see you working on a problem over a period of time, and you are transparent with the process, it can be a bit like accidentally burning someone’s village down and then helping them to rebuild it. At first they’ll be angry, but over time, they’ll see you’re mucking in for their best interest, which builds trust and respect from your customers. But only if you’re honest.
Key things to remember for your crisis war-chest:
Assume control: If you are on point to resolve the crisis assume you have the authority required to get the job done and act accordingly.
Create a war room: You will need a space that is dedicated and appropriately furnished; with plenty of power and connectivity, whiteboards and paper.
Measuring up the problem: Measure the lead and lag indicators and track them plus the time it takes to move through to resolution stages. This is critical to understanding whether you are on track or drifting and it will also give management and the customer a view of how things are tracking. The golden rule when measuring through stages nearly done is not to say it’s done; never check something as completed until it enters the next stage.
Also what’s important to measure will change as the resolution progresses, be prepared to tune the report.
Cadence: Setup the cadence for reporting and tracking. It is really hard to stop and spend time creating reports however overall this saves you time as one story is communicated through a central channel once. The last thing you want is to individually brief executives on the latest updates. Meeting frequency should range from two to six per 12 hour period to be effective.
Sleep: Remember people need to sleep. If your crisis is likely to run longer than 48 hours and is the type of crisis that you will work around the clock, create a night/day roster. No-one, regardless of how good they are, is effective after 48 hours of no sleep. A high adrenaline situation turns everyone into an incoherent mess.
Food: Remember people need to eat; make sure that someone is organising regular food and drinks for the war room.
You need People: It’s really easy to not see the individuals when the stakes are high. Remember, nearly any crisis you can think of is going to require 10’s or 100’s of people to go to extraordinary lengths to bring things under control, so remain friendly and empathetic in your dealings when you can; it will go a long way to getting colleagues to go that extra mile.
Make lemonade: Don’t forget to capture some of the lessons learnt from the crisis; it’s common to come out the other end of a crisis having learnt the most efficient way to execute a task
You are human: Everyone has a limit and in a sustained crisis this is often where you will find your limit; don’t be afraid to put your hand up and say you need a break or help or can’t cope.