Experience has shown that when suddenly faced with a catastrophe, crisis managers have a tendency,
from the outset, to try and follow familiar or routine systems. The more disturbing the situation
the stronger the urge to take refuge in familiar procedures. Yet such procedures are probably the
most inappropriate ones to take when what you are faced with a situation that is anything but familiar.
I have personally witnessed this phenomenon at major incidents ranging from the Kings Cross Fire
in London where over 30 people perished, to terrorist sieges and with hindsight, have been guilty of
it myself when faced with catastrophe. Events where the usual "mental control panel" seems
to have stopped working: all the dials are in the red zone, the data misleading and the
"instruments" mean nothing.
The key is prior preparation, based on what can happen, rather than what might happen. That is why
selecting and training a Crisis Management Team (CMT) is so important � especially when decisions
have to be made very quickly, as for example on the flight deck of an aircraft. If an airline pilot
approaching the crucial speed at the end of the runway to take off (the decision speed) then suddenly
notices an engine is out, he or she will not take that opportunity to start wide ranging discussions
before deciding whether or not to lift off, or hit the emergency brakes. What happens in those
few seconds does not represent the momentary whims of one person: for the most part the reflexes that
come into play are based on prior preparation.
For organizations wanting to maintain stability or market share (or in a crisis survive and indeed
prosper) prior preparation to work out how, in advance, to deal with any corporate drama is, I believe,
no longer optional. It is essential. Conceptually, like Business Continuity Planning (BCP), it is all
part of good Risk Management, although there is an equal suggestion that it all comes under BCP? Just
thinking about this helps considerably to stimulate thoughts on the subject, which is no bad
thing. But let us not get hung up so early on semantics. The important thing is to avoid a sterile
debate on what is a dynamic front-end concept that operates in a "quick time" as opposed to
"slow time" environment (i.e. where thoughts and actions are measured and quickly taken
within minutes, rather than debated at length more slowly).
Over the years I have helped many organizations in the UK and Europe create, train and test their
own Crisis Teams and have realized that there are five important headings that must, I feel,
always be born in mind:
First, when you are analyzing data and researching the best options,
always remember to "keep your eye on the ball" and not let the
project get hijacked by something else. All the plans, mission statements, recovery options
and supply chain goodwill counts for nothing if executives cannot switch to "quick time"
thinking and form a CMT without delay. It is therefore a subject where selection, training,
testing, and exercising counts for everything.
Second, getting board level agreement is not enough. You must get board level
commitment and hands-on involvement.
Third, manage your risks properly and recognize that
the key to any successful CMT is to realize that containing a crisis is more
effective than recovering from a disaster. In so doing it should be realized that none of
this should be a "grudge purchase". It is instead, firmly linked to profit retention.
Forth, make sure that your CMT is to be a truly
operational tool and not just a reference whose purpose is to reassure everyone
when things are calm. It must be part of management and a continuous process, of which the
document marked "plan", is simply a written presentation of management competence.
Fifth, when setting up any measurement criteria, seek
out what is important and then work out how to measure it (e.g. measuring
damage to reputation). Some years ago, at the beginning of the Vietnam War, the
US Army had numerous firefights with the VC Army and quickly realized that the
amount of enemy dead invariably far exceeded their own. It was easy to measure and thus
could be used to calculate who would win the war, and how soon. However, in doing this the
US Army made the mistake of finding something to measure and then making it important, rather
than the other way around. For the VC Army, leaving the dead in the field was irrelevant
when you had endless reserves, control over domestic media coverage, and a will to win.
There is also a sixth heading that should also be
remembered. That is: things are not always as they first seem. Take for
example, the following story that I have used several times when training
It is said that not long ago a team of scientists where keen to investigate why, in some hidden
valley in Europe, people routinely live over 100 years. After searching for many months they
eventually discovered "Shangri-La". A valley that seemed lost in time. Through an
interpreter they interviewed several very old residents until, at last, they spoke with one man
reputed to be 120 years old. Frail, barley audible, and with not long to live, he lay on a
crude bench outside a wooden hut. He had a long white beard, and was supported by a walking
stick under his chin.
Desperate to discover the secrets of true longevity, the team of scientists gently asked the
old man to list what he had avoided throughout his long life, noticing that from inside the
hut behind the old man girls appeared to be running about shrieking with laughter, beer bottles
and underwear were, it seemed, occasionally tossed out of the window through a haze
of cigarette smoke.
Over the din the frail old man muttered that he had never been with a woman, refused all alcohol
and totally avoided smoking. "Eureka!" cried the scientists. "We now know the
secret of longevity!" Then, just as they were leaving, one of them asked the old man what
all the commotion was inside the hut? "Oh that, he muttered, is my father. He�s always
The moral of this story is surprisingly relevant to building and running a CMT: You might think
that you have identified what appears to be the answer, but a wider perspective might reveal the
When analyzed, many crises are not sudden and can actually become catalysts for successful
restructuring. It has been said that Crises breed life, whereas, order breeds habit. In a
possible catastrophe situation, opportunities to demonstrate virtue, integrity and resilience,
can be productive assuming, that is, your response has been tested in advance and is
flexible and designed for crisis limitation, rather than assuming total disaster.
Crisis prevention is considerably more effective than disaster recovery and many organizations
are encouraged by some consultants, to spend a disproportionate amount of time and money on
recovery options, without first looking at what organizations are doing to minimize risks � at all
In my experience, the highest number of disasters are caused by organizations that fail to prevent a
crisis from getting worse and then only waking up when things have deteriorated to the point of
disaster. Although there are exceptions to this, the fact remains that few managers and their
employees understand that options exist to train people to act with confidence and skill at the
initial stages of an incident to stop it spreading. In 1999 events in Belgium subsequently
showed the importance of this. As Corie Lok and Douglas Powell from the Department of Food Science
at the University of Guelph reported, things did not go exactly as planned for the government CMT.
In the spring of 1999, dioxin was introduced into the Belgian food supply, including exports, via
contaminated animal fat used in animal feeds supplied to Belgian, French and Dutch farms. Hens,
pigs, and cattle ate the contaminated feed and high levels of dioxin were found in meat
products as well as eggs. What followed was yet another European food safety scandal filled with
drama and public outcry. There were government investigations, the removal, and destruction of
tons of eggs and meat products and huge economic losses. The case study of this incident illustrates
how the crisis unfolded, and how the Belgian government managed and communicated this crisis, based
on publicly available documentation. The government's major error was that it did not promptly go
public with the knowledge of the crisis, resulting in accusations of a self-serving cover-up.
The government's poor CMT and communication strategy became the focus of intense public and
media criticism and blame. Moreover, the significant issue of poor quality control in the food
and feed industries was pushed to the sideline. Not only was the reputation of the food supply
tarnished, but public confidence in the government was damaged, leading to the resignations of
two cabinet ministers and the ousting of the ruling party in a national election. This incident
confirms the basic components required to manage any food-related stigma:
- Effective and rapid surveillance systems;
- Effective communication about the nature of risk;
- A credible, open and responsive regulatory system;
- Demonstrable efforts to reduce levels of uncertainty and risk;
- Evidence that actions match words.
Research at Oxford University (Knight & Pretty) has found clear evidence that the ability of a
CMT was far more significant than catastrophe insurance and demonstrably leads to an actual increase
in share value if an organization was perceived as competent in preventing chaos in a crisis.
This is not always realized, as is the likelihood of insurance premium / period of BI reductions
that should naturally follow these initial considerations. Is it therefore possible to actually save
money and develop leadership skills that have more routine applications? I think yes.
I have encouraged many organizations to ask if their existing CMT plans are "crisis friendly".
By that I mean capable of being read by someone actually in a crisis, 100% up on heart beat, and
suffering from "un-ness"( unexpected, unscheduled, unprecedented and almost unimaginable.
Plans must be designed to inform the reader, not protect the author.
Particular lessons in CMT plan preparation are to:
Avoid analysis paralysis, when too few people, under funded and at
the wrong position in an organization, try to tackle too much data on
their own, and
Avoid a catch 22 situation. Just as preparing a CMT team that only
concentrates on the "headline" causes may fail if a more mundane disaster occurs,
so a CMT plan which is overly concerned with the most probable may fail if fate provides the
company with one of the nightmare scenarios.
Once again, what you may be looking at might appear a minor catastrophe, but can you predict what
might may yet be concealed?
"The ship had been burning for twenty minutes when it exploded. No one suspected that the
situation was dangerous: people were at their windows to see the show and it was the explosion
that caused some 2000 deaths and thousands of injuries from shattering glass. No one knew that
the boat was transporting large quantity of explosives."
Explosion of the Mont-Blanc in Halifax on 7 December 19
A sequential crisis plan that grades escalating incidents that can, if necessary, also be put into
reverse, should enable organizations to measure both prevention and recovery. Actually sustaining
organizational commitment and progress is more important than an over indulgence just in disaster
recovery. You might therefore prepare workable and sustainable CMT measures, in advance,
based on the following 12 suggestions:
Knowing how to select the actual the Team leader (not forgetting that
you will need several since none of us can work for more than a few hours). A famous General once
said, "I am their leader. Therefore I suppose I should follow them..." But is
this the right approach? Team leader selection has to be based on competence, rather than routine
position in the organizational hierarchy. I strongly advise that a skilled outside consultant (who�s
career in not on the line!) does this with you � never for you.
Team Leader skills must reflect that what determines their function is
something called "followership". That is, unless the team are ready and willing to
follow, do not even attempt to become the leader. In short, no leader = no team and vice versa.
The Team Leader must always keep in balance three key considerations
(courtesy John Adair):
- Team Needs � what does the group require, as a whole, to work?
- Task Needs � what exactly is the job to be done?
- Individual Needs � what does each individual require or have to work at best performance?
Board level commitment and involvement (CEO very much included) is crucial
from the outset. He or she does not always have to be the leader, as different situations
require different styles that the CEO, for example, might not have � but the
routine boss maintains authority by delegating and resuming at the correct
The actual team must work in harmony and there are psychometric tests
(e.g. Belbin) to help work this out in advance. Always avoid lots of people who think the same.
You need someone to push, someone to challenge, someone to reflect and so on. Better that people
capable of working under extreme pressure are on the team, rather than otherwise knowledgeable
staff who will soon collapse. Alternatively, staff can be trained if they are unfamiliar with
working under pressure, but that also requires third party support.
Identifying what exactly are the threats and risks facing you? Work these
out in advance and mitigate, or at least reduce exposure.
Identify what organizational critical functions and assets have to be
protected above others. (I would be surprised if protecting reputation was not the most important
consideration. Therefore what are the functions and assets that most have an impact on this?)
Developing a decision matrix for most crises that are not black and white,
and then testing how long it will take to re-start key functions elsewhere at a time of crises.
Having systems in place to warn of impending crises. 90% of UK disasters are
"quiet catastrophes" such as contamination, water leaks, and growing fires - not
Calling in expert support. Too many plans are in the form of intellectual
guidance, rather than action oriented. Many organizations have a "blame undercurrent"
that might prevent any employee (including contract security / maintenance staff) from activating
a plan on honest "suspicion" alone. A specialist consultant can certainly help you,
providing he or she has real experience of crises management.
Understanding that preventing chaos in a crisis prevents a catastrophe from sliding into a disaster.
Understanding the difference between Planning, Managing and Leading. Each
requires different skills that can be identified through good selection, training and testing.
I guess it�s all about CMT Leadership, which, like swimming, cannot be learned just by reading about
it. It is best done with good advice and actually trying it out � before you are thrown into the
deep end. So, who needs Crisis Management Teams? Perhaps you do.