The third of three posts on what the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us about crisis and issues management.
#3. Is the ‘crisis room’ dead? (and does it matter?)
It seems like a lifetime ago, but a year ago I was running crisis simulation exercises in which senior executive teams, functional teams and country management teams were assembled in person for up to 6 hours in their respective locations, using whiteboards to respond to a fictional scenario.
Of course, even then this was unrealistic. Many organisations have leaders scattered all around the globe (or at least the country) and the chances of them being in the same place at the same time to manage a fast-moving crisis are close to zero. But these in-person exercises served (and still serve) a useful purpose of creating an intimate shared rehearsal experience and cementing – or even creating – the relationships that a real crisis response would need.
COVID-19 has now shown that we can embrace change when it is forced upon us, and that technology for the most part can support flexibility. It has changed our relationship to our place of work, with some organisations already declaring that working away from the office will continue indefinitely. This change was already happening, but it was happening slowly. As many who have been through a painful crisis know, sometimes a crisis is the opportunity to make and/or accelerate a change that has been on the cards for a while.
Does COVID-19 therefore spell the end of the ‘situation room’ or crisis room? Whilst we must be careful of ‘everything has changed forever’ prophecies, the notion of a special (even dedicated) physical facility for the management of a crisis certainly seems anachronistic.
But wait a moment. It is less than four years since the not-Petya and other cyberattacks crippled the tech infrastructure of many organisations. For some, the ability to communicate internally and externally – or even to turn a laptop on – was stopped dead. Cyber defences and cyber crisis responses have been strengthened since then but, if the COVID-19 experience causes us to pivot to an assumption of tech-enabled crisis response, perhaps we are reopening a risk which is still very raw for some.
The answer, as ever, is not black and white. So here are three thoughts for those tasked with oversight of an organisation’s crisis capability.
- Get comfortable with the connectivity. This is not about whether the technology exists – it does – but how we interact with it under pressure and scrutiny. The crisis paper trail is an important task for Legal and, with dozens of people involved in a response which will likely be subject to some sort of investigation, the opportunity for email mishaps, careless WhatsApp chatter, failure to keep proper records etc is high. Think about, approve and rehearse different communication channel requirements for different scenarios.
- Focus on leadership, motivation and internal communications. There are three types of leadership in a crisis: public leadership (e.g. via the media); organisational leadership (leading the wider enterprise in crisis); and situational leadership (running a crisis management team). All require visibility, motivation and communication. In any major crisis, it takes extraordinary leaders to keep these three types of leadership up. This is more challenging when teams and organisations are working remotely; and even more so if technology has been disrupted. Imagine scenarios of dislocation/disruption and help leaders understand the roles they will need to play and the practical support they will need.
- Keep the crisis capability agile. Adopt a ‘whatever, whenever, wherever, however’ approach. The capability needs to work whatever the circumstance, whenever it happens, wherever it plays out and however you will be able to respond. A crisis room might work; it might not. Tech-enabled crisis management might be available and advisable; it might not. Meet this complexity and uncertainty with simplicity and flexibility in your approach to crisis management.
If an outcome of COVID-19 is shorter manuals that empower through values and principles and which can flex to the many different crisis experiences your organisation could face, then this will show once again that a crisis can indeed stimulate a change that has been a long time coming.