I have been thinking about effective crisis management a lot recently and am working on a more in-depth piece on managing a crisis which I hope to publish soon. However, crises don’t wait until we are properly prepared before they strike so I put together this quick set of suggestions as a stop-gap.
Normally, I wouldn’t make a top-10 list but sometimes it’s the easiest way to share ideas. So here goes and I hope you find these suggestions useful.
10 tips for effective crisis management
1. Go back in time
A successful crisis response begins days, weeks, months, even years before the first bad headline. Thinking that you can start preparing when the phones begin to ring is naive and short sighted. Individual and team skills need to be honed, institutional muscle memory developed and plans and processes built and tested well before something happens if you want to be successful. So get ready now because the crisis will hit whether you are ready or not.
2. Get to the bottom fast
Even in a crisis, you need to ask ‘how bad could this be?’ This is the worst case scenario so avoid trying to minimize things or look on the bright side and remember that a slow ‘drip, drip’ of bad news is very hard to respond to. Work out how bad things are and confront the the whole situation, unpleasant as it is, as quickly as possible. Someone is going to tell your story and it’s better that you are that someone.
The one thing I learned about crisis … if you’re in a crisis, you have to find the bottom and find it fast. … You’ve got to describe it, and you’ve got to be willing to describe it probably in some amount of detail that gives the public confidence that you know where the bottom is and third, you have to describe in good specificity how you’re going to dig yourself out of it.
3. Throw everything at the problem
Don’t take an incremental, sequential approach. So instead of starting with Plan A, followed by a bigger Plan B if that fails, then pulling out all the stops for plan C, you need to throw all the people, resources and money you have at the problem right away. Run plans A, B and C (and D, E, F….) simultaneously so if one fails, the other is already in progress. A decisive, rapid response with overwhelming resources can defuse a crisis but a slow, piecemeal approach will only draw things out and make it worse.
4. Expect change
One of the most important things I was taught in the military was to routinely ask ‘Has the situation changed since we made this plan?’ This was a reminder to confirm that assumptions were still valid, to check nothing had changed in the area of operations and to ensure that other parts of the plan were progressing as anticipated. If the answer was yes and something had changed then it was time to rethink things, adapt to the new situation and press on. Crises are constantly in flux so make sure that you are always asking ‘what’s changed?’ and that you are responding to the current situation, not what things looked like hours or days previously.
5. Execute, execute, execute
Allocate 20% of your time to planning and dedicate everything else to making that plan work. Repeat.
6. Don’t focus on the obvious
If the root problem and solution were obvious, you probably wouldn’t be in a crisis. Obvious problems with obviously solutions should have been tackled well before these became a crisis. So maybe the issue isn’t the fraud, it’s the cover up. The oil spill is bad but the flippant, insensitive comments from your CEO are thwarting the clean up and causing additional, long-term damage to your organization.
7. Acknowledge your limits
You will have limits both individually and as a team. Acknowledge these and remember that seniority doesn’t always equal experience which doesn’t always equal competence. It might be admirable for the Captain to go down with their ship but it’s inexcusable for the Captain to steer the ship into danger when a more competent subordinate could have taken them to safety. Which leads to…
8. Check your ego (and your gut)
Your ego and gut instincts may very well be what got you here in the first place so a crisis isn’t the time to expect to solve things through sheer force of will and instinct. Humble pie isn’t very appetizing but it tastes better than failure.
9. Maintain discipline
Crises are not the time for sloppiness and individuals and teams need to stay disciplined. Follow the plan, use the procedures and processes that have been agreed, stay in your lanes. Crises are survivable but not if the response is a free-for all.
10. Prepare for the long haul
Emergencies are over in minutes or hours but crises last for years. Your response needs to be structured so that the organization can continue to devote time, resources and management focus to the problem for an extended period. All while also ensuring that the rest of the organization continues to operate. In the short term, this means having alternates to allow people to have a break, to rest and to clean up. Longer-term this can mean rotating people in and out of teams completely. This provides fresh, rested minds, new perspectives and a renewed sense of urgency and seriousness which can erode over time.
As soon as the response feels like routine activity, you need to change people over to maintain the urgency and respect that a crisis demands to be successful.
Bonus #11. Take it seriously
To do any of this assumes that you are taking things seriously in the first place: there is a big gap between saying you are serious and actually being serious. Every organization’s leaders will say that they prioritize crisis preparedness but in practice they ignore red flags hoping they will go away, spend less time annually on crisis preparation than they do on haircuts and, when something does finally happen, don’t take it seriously until it is too late. In many situations, crises are avoidable, manageable and survivable but only if you take things seriously.
I hope you found this top-ten useful. As a bonus, download the crib-sheet and keep it on hand as a reminder. Get the tip sheet here