The three stages of crisis management – post-crisis

27 July 2020 -

Traffic lightPost-crisis success is linked closely to how you handled the pre- and during-crisis phases. It’s also about the next crisis on the horizon

Mark Rowland

Rick Rescorla – Brit, Vietnam veteran and chief security officer at Morgan Stanley – had predicted the attempted bombing of the World Trade Center car park. Morgan Stanley had moved into the building in 1989, and Rescorla had identified terrorist attacks as a potential risk when assessing the building.

Having been proved right, and with the Morgan Stanley board taking his word very seriously, Rescorla predicted it could happen again – possibly by air. Lessons needed to be taken and acted upon, and swiftly.

One option was to move the company to a less prominent location, but that just wasn’t practical. The company had signed a long lease and needed to be at the city’s financial centre. The next best thing was to be prepared.

Rescorla was given free rein over the office’s security. Every person through the door at Morgan Stanley was given a thorough safety and security brief. Everyone – even the board – took part in safety preparedness exercises. Every scenario was planned for.

When the first plane hit during the 9/11 attacks, Rescorla and his team sprung into action. Every single person in the office, visitors included, knew how to respond. They got everyone out of the office safely. The only people from Morgan Stanley to lose their lives that day were Rescorla and his security team, who went back in to help other companies get out of the building.

This is a great example of effective post-crisis planning. The lessons learned from the first incident stuck, allowing the business to respond quickly and effectively. Post-crisis planning is all about the next crisis; what you and your team can take forward to improve either business as usual or your future crisis responses.

The importance of goal-setting

It might seem strange to think of goal-setting as a crucial step in a crisis situation, but setting some kind of desired output can make decision-making easier, and give purpose to the post-crisis phase. Both Kate Hartley, co-founder of crisis scenario planning company Polpeo and author of Communicating in a Crisis, and Jonathan Hemus, public speaker and director of crisis management company Insignia, advocate strongly for strong goals in a crisis setting.

Ask yourself: what do I want to happen in six months’ time? It may be as simple as: maintain customer loyalty and trust, but it helps set a direction as the pressure rises. “That’s really what you measure at the end when you come out of a crisis,” says Hartley. “You need to measure back against that original objective.”

Hemus calls this goal the company’s ‘strategic intent’ for crisis management: “People can start taking action in the absence of a shared understanding of what it is that they’re seeking to achieve. The leadership team needs to articulate what success looks like in managing the crisis.”

Understand the longer-term effects

Justin Crump, CEO of global risk firm Sibylline, argues that we’re still feeling the effects of 9/11. It’s not necessarily helpful to think of a crisis as ‘over’ in the post-crisis phase – it may be a new permanent state that the business has adapted to.

“Change happens. Get over it,” he says. “There’s a panic when you’re transitioning at speed, and then you adapt. So I don’t think the crisis comes and goes unless it’s a simple thing like the power’s out in your building. For bigger crises, the crisis never stops, you adapt to a new way of working.”

For Crump, that is the most important part of the post-crisis phase: assessing whether the organisation was able to grow and move on. “A sound base before that is to have understood the problem and the environment, had good communication and good procedures; allow effective decision-making at a different tempo and set of restraints, coping with the change, and moving on.”

Take an honest review

For a post-crisis review to be effective, it must be honest. It must be clear, to everyone, that the aim is not to apportion blame – rather, it is about looking at the response in a holistic and objective way.

“That can be really difficult to do if you’re involved in a crisis, because nobody is going to want to say ‘I failed in this area’,” says Hartley. “So you need an objective appraisal of what happened, and you need to look at everything.”

It may be worth bringing in someone with some objectivity – either from a different team or even a third party, depending on how big the crisis is – to manage the process. Sometimes, the leadership team will go as a result of a major crisis. In that case, it’s important that someone is recording every action as the crisis unfurls.

If you have a strategic intent for the crisis, you can measure what actually happened against that objective, and identify why any gaps occurred. Conduct a review meeting or workshop with key people. Make sure it’s an open and safe environment to share honestly (a third-party leader will help with that).

It’s also important to look at what went right as well as what went wrong, says Hemus. “Firstly, so you can make sure you repeat them in a future crisis, but secondly, there are ways of working in a crisis that were really successful that can actually transfer over to business as usual.”

Make sure you decide who is responsible for making sure that lessons are acted upon. “It would be criminal to go through the agony of a crisis and capture the learnings but not embed them in your crisis management plan and make the same mistakes again,” says Hemus.

Look towards the next crisis

The next crisis after the current one is always the one that gets you, says Crump. Post-crisis, you should have one eye on the next crisis around the corner. It is essentially the pre-crisis phase for that next issue. “It comes down to having those basic building blocks in place. The more prepared you can be before the crisis, the better you’re going to perform.”

Crump cites a military expression for when planning for the next event: the enemy always get a vote. There will always be factors that will be unexpected or environmental factors that won’t go the way you want. Businesses should determine what factors would stop them from operating and work down from that, says Crump.

“Say you run an airline, what are the biggest threats? Well, if people aren’t flying places, or if you can’t fly places. So what might cause that? There are two major reasons short of nuclear annihilation, and that would be massive volcanic activity and a pandemic.”

Ask how likely those incidents are. If they did happen, how long would you be out of business for? What will it cost you to stop working? Plan contingencies into your day-to-day activities to ensure you’re prepared.

It’s all about embedding habits, and that’s why you should never let a good crisis go to waste, he says. “A post-crisis movement is getting over that short-termism and learning about what resilience actually means, but it’s like going through a speed camera – you slow down in the few miles either side of it, and then it wears off again. The external pressures, such as getting somewhere on time, come back into play. You have to make sure it sticks.”

In order to ensure that organisations are equipped to effectively identify, manage, respond and recover from major disruptions, it is essential that a Business Continuity Management (BCM) framework is in place. Checklist 255 in ManagementDirect (free-to-use for CMI members) covers ‘Business continuity planning for major disruptions’.

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