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June 2001


By Peter Power<
Visor Consultants Limited
212 Piccadilly, London, W1J 9HG
Tel: 0207-917-6026
Fax: 0207-439-0626
Directors: Peter Power. BA. FIMgt. FBCI. MIRM. David Bawtree. CB. CEng. Dr. Tony Burns-Howell. PhD. BA (Econ).

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 CMT�s.

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 drunk".

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 actual truth?

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 levels.

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:

  1. Effective and rapid surveillance systems;
  2. Effective communication about the nature of risk;
  3. A credible, open and responsive regulatory system;
  4. Demonstrable efforts to reduce levels of uncertainty and risk;
  5. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?
  4. 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 time.
  5. 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.
  6. Identifying what exactly are the threats and risks facing you? Work these out in advance and mitigate, or at least reduce exposure.
  7. 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?)
  8. 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.
  9. 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 necessarily explosions.
  10. 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.
  11. Understanding that preventing chaos in a crisis prevents a catastrophe from sliding into a disaster.
  12. 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.

Peter Power is MD Visor Consultants Limited, 212 Piccadilly, London ( a company specializing in Crisis & Risk Management and CMT selection and training. He is the author of the UK Government (DTI) Guide on Preventing Chaos in a Crisis. He lectures at Reading and South Bank Universities and is a founding member of UK judging panel on Business Continuity Awards. This year he was voted BC "Personality of the Year." Peter also speaks occasionally on BBC TV and radio. He is a member of the Guild of Freemen of the City of London and was the primary architect behind the present UK wide Police Command Methodology, Gold Silver & Bronze. Peter can be contacted on email

©Copyright 2001 - All Rights Reserved


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