How the bleep did we wind up here?
We were working through our checklists and things were going so well, and now we’re just lost… things are coming at us from every direction and we’re not sure what’s actually happening now.
How did that happen, anyways?
In this episode of the Managing Uncertainty Podcast, Bryghtpath Principal & CEO Bryan Strawser and Senior Consultant Jennifer Otremba discuss how crisis situations can get out of control as things escalate. Topics discussed include crisis management frameworks, situational awareness, the need for a “radar screen” to detect incoming threats, and examples from recent disasters.
Bryan Strawser: How the bleep did we wind up here?
Jen Otremba: I don’t know.
Bryan Strawser: I mean, I don’t get it. This disaster was progressing as we expected and we were working down the checklist-
Jen Otremba: And we had plans, we had a plan.
Bryan Strawser: We had plans and now all of a sudden I don’t know where we’re at.
Jen Otremba: There’s so much going on.
Bryan Strawser: It’s coming at us from every direction and I’m just lost, I don’t know what I’m supposed to be dealing with. So you’re probably wondering what the heck we’re talking about. So there’s this idea that I learned a long time ago about when you’re dealing with crisis that our tendency is that we want to go out and create plans.
Jen Otremba: Which is what we tell people to do.
Bryan Strawser: Which we tell people to do, but we talk about … Lots of people call us and say, “We need help developing crisis or emergency plans and here’s what we want to have plans for.” And we always kind of stop the conversation and say, “So, talk to me about how you’ll lead through a crisis.” And we’ve had previous episodes where we’ve talked about the need to have a defined crisis management framework, and how do you escalate and communicate and make decisions in a crisis?
But if we go back to the beginning of that whole thing, that we know that there are things that are going to happen in our business, in a client’s business that are going to be bad. There are going to be crises, and we can probably guess what the top 10, 15, 20, 25, 30 of them are going to be, and so we tend to make plans for those because we know that these are things we’re going to have to deal with.
Jen Otremba: And we have experience with those things.
Bryan Strawser: We have experience with those things, and some of them are common. Fires happen, and severe weather happens and there’s nothing that you can do to control it. You’re going to have thunderstorms and straight-line winds and tornadoes and-
Jen Otremba: Yeah, just last night we had some severe storms.
Bryan Strawser: We had this just last night here in Minnesota, at the time that we’re recording this anyway, when we hear this it might be a few weeks down the road.
Jen Otremba: Yeah, that’s true.
Bryan Strawser: But we haven’t learned how to control the weather yet, so we know that these things are going to happen, we know that we’ll have lightning storms that will damage homes and might lead to fire, and we know that fires are going to happen and there’s going to be power outages and gas leaks, and utility outages-
Jen Otremba: Snow storms.
Bryan Strawser: And snow storms, at least for those of you in the north, but then we get into things that might be a little more exotic. We might have active shooters, we might have a workplace violence threat, we might have a roof collapse.
Jen Otremba: A bomb threat.
Bryan Strawser: A bomb threat, you might have a violent attack, you might have a domestic violence situation. The list goes on.
Jen Otremba: Water main break.
Bryan Strawser: But there are things that we know within a reasonable certainty, given enough time are going to happen and there’s very little that we can do to prepare for that, there’s very little we can do to control that I should say, to stop it from happening. There’s certainly some things that we can do to mitigate it.
Jen Otremba: And prevent it.
Bryan Strawser: But we create plans for this, right? So locations create emergency checklists, and even at a corporate level we create checklists to deal with the initial response, and we connect that to some kind of crisis framework, and we might do this. Companies might have 25 situations that they have pretty good plans in place for, and all big crisis situations usually start there. It’s something that you have a plan for, and then as you’re managing that situation we talk about, we’ve talked about having a radar screen and understanding threats that are coming in, and this need for situational awareness of what’s going on. I think the great challenge for crisis leaders is that you have to keep your process and your team above that, and you have to be able to see what else is happening while you’re dealing with the here and now of the situation that you’re finding yourselves in.
Jen Otremba: Right, because there’s always, business still needs to go on, right?
Bryan Strawser: Then there’s the things that you just don’t see coming, and sometimes it’s just the unknown event that you didn’t predict, or it’s the failure of imagination, this is kind of we describe 9/11, that nobody thought that this could happen, and then now it’s here, and who knew? And now we’ve got to work through this new reality thing. But sometimes you find yourself in these really bad situations and it started with something that you knew and you thought you had, but it comes at you in some unique combination, and then you sit there and go, “How the F did we get over here? How did this happen?”
Jen Otremba: Yeah.
Bryan Strawser: Long ago a professor of mine, Dr. Dutch Leonard from Harvard, described this whole idea of acting in time. That there’s this window of opportunity following a disaster, following the boom, as we like to say, that you can react. And those actions and decisions that you make, if you make them quickly enough you can influence the outcome of the situation, but that window of time diminishes. But I remember vividly this discussion we had one day in class about the great Japanese earthquake in 2011, where you had one of the top ten earthquakes in recorded human history leading to a massive tsunami, which leads to a big rheological disaster at Fukushima and the Japanese government really struggle with this whole situation, while everybody looking from the outside went, “Man, they’re in a bad boat.” They got a big tsunami coming ashore, and all the damage, and the earthquake itself that caused damage. Massive casualties, and now they have this rheological disaster, and look at those three things that are going on.
Jen Otremba: I think with that, we were talking about this earlier, the important thing to point out there is that Japan knows how to do emergency management.
Bryan Strawser: All three of those things very well.
Jen Otremba: Yeah, because they experience it all the time.
Bryan Strawser: Best in the world, perhaps.
Jen Otremba: Yes, exactly, and they had plans, and they had processes [crosstalk 00:05:58]
Bryan Strawser: Not only do the government have plans, but their businesses have plans.
Jen Otremba: Exactly, yeah.
Bryan Strawser: And now because all three things happen at once, they very quickly went from, “We have this under control, we’re working a checklist,” to not having the right situational awareness things in place and didn’t see the interconnectivity of what was going on to, “What the F just happened to us?” And “Holy cow, now what do we do?” And they visibly struggled, it brought down the sitting Japanese government over time, if I remember correctly.
Jen Otremba: Yeah, well it was huge. It was a huge mess.
Bryan Strawser: Right. I was there, I think it was six months to the day after the earthquake, I was at an APEC event, Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, group that the US was a part of. I went out there at FIMA’s invitation to present on private sector emergency management and business continuity, and we held it in Sendai, the biggest city near where the earthquake was, it’s where the tsunami came ashore, in Northern Japan. And we had a lot of this, certainly no one was there to assess any blame, but we had a lot of discussion about earthquakes and tsunamis are things that you can predict. I mean you can’t predict, but you know that they’re going to happen and you can make plans for these things.
Jen Otremba: Right.
Bryan Strawser: It’s the need to have situational awareness and the need to help businesses prepare, that was a great challenge. The news media didn’t do the devastation justice, it was really something to see in person. But that’s not what we’re talking about, the event here is really-
Jen Otremba: Sand track Bryan.
Bryan Strawser: Yeah, I know … but how do you, when you’re in the middle of the disaster, you’re in the middle of the response and you’ve got multiple things going on, like in this case three interconnected but independent issues that you’re dealing with the aftermath of, how do you keep your head above that? How do you stay focused on, “Hey there’s a strategic picture and it might go beyond these three interconnected things we’re dealing with right now?”
Jen Otremba: Yeah. I think, going back to the discussion that we had about the radar screen, for instance, if you had a team that’s looking at all of these things and managing all of these things at once, they may easily get sucked into that silo. This is happening over here, this is happening over here, but if you have a leader of that team that is managing all of these things happening they should be the person to see, “Hey, these connect somehow.” That’s on a smaller organization scale, but larger scale, FIMA or something like that, would be the same way.
Bryan Strawser: Right. We’ve talked previously, I think in our Leading in an After Shooter Situation episode, where we talked about you really want to separate the immediate response actions from the longer term planning, and I think this is similar in that you should have some kind of watch intel operation, even if it’s just part of one person’s time. It’s looking at that big picture and that’s the radar screen right there telling you about the things that are coming in. At the same time you have a broader group of people, who are your crisis team, that’s dealing with these situations as they’re happening.
Jen Otremba: Yeah. And at that point in time you might need to split the team up and have certain people work on this, and we’ve done that before where we had separate conference rooms for separate incidents happening at a time, or one major incident but we had people monitoring for additional incidents that may occur.
Bryan Strawser: I really do believe that the challenge in these situations is you can get so focused on the response and what you’re doing right now, that you just fail to see this massive issue headed in your direction that you’ve got to manage, and I think that the danger is getting on that single track focus of what’s going on and not seeing the other events that are happening and how they interconnect.
Jen Otremba: Yeah, fail to see something bigger coming, as well.
Bryan Strawser: Right. I mean we mentioned 9/11, but think about the asymmetricness of that kind of event where it was in Pennsylvania, and DC, and New York and it was near simultaneous, and so you’re trying to react to all of this and you’ve completely lost your ability to be proactive and in front of what’s going on because you’ve no idea what’s coming next.
Jen Otremba: No, which is what made it so scary to everyone.
Bryan Strawser: Right.
Jen Otremba: Yeah.
Bryan Strawser: This need for the radar screen I think is one of the greatest learnings out of all of, if you think about situations like the earthquake in Japan, but being able to keep yourself above that is a great challenge. I think most folks have started with the idea of having checklists and plans in place for emergencies, I think having the radar screen is a difficult challenge. I think being able to deal with the situation that you didn’t see coming is the other part of that challenge and making sure that you have the right kind of framework in place from a crisis management standpoint to escalate any kind of issue, deal with it collaboratively, and make the decisions about what you’re going to communicate out during those situations.
Jen Otremba: Right. I think having the right people in the right places as well. So, in Japan, at that point, they were all in it. So maybe if they had someone outside looking in able to help them, then would have been able to connect all the dots, but that’s obviously huge large scale. But in a smaller scale, like a corporation, oftentimes when we had things happen at a field office or a field location, or something like that, it was much easier for us to monitor that from afar than be in the middle of it and trying to manage it from there.
Bryan Strawser: But I think, actually it’s a great example, because at our distance, being at corporate, while a certain location or a local market was dealing with an issue, I think we had more emotional detachment from the situation.
Jen Otremba: Absolutely.
Bryan Strawser: And we weren’t so bogged down in the details of what was going on, we could see the bigger picture.
Jen Otremba: Absolutely, or I think, like the Moore tornado, when that came through we weren’t worried about our families being in the middle of the Moore tornado while I’m at work, whereas our employees that were in that area were.
Bryan Strawser: Right. I think one of the challenges with all this too is that in the middle of a crisis, and we always talk about crisis as being some kind of disruption driven by violence or crime or natural disaster, but I think that we forget that the more difficult aspect to deal with is the reputational aspect of these situations, that we can handle something correctly from a peer crisis management standpoint and then the reputational thing comes up that’s related to that and just knocks the wind out of our sales because we didn’t see that coming. That idea of the radar screen can’t just be about terrorism threats and natural disaster weather threats, it has to be about the reputation of the organization and how is that getting communicated? What does that look like? Social media, real media.
Jen Otremba: I like how you put that earlier about the acting in time, or your professor said that, acting in time, because that initial reaction really can make a difference when it comes to the public opinion.
Bryan Strawser: There’s the great video of, when Ronald Reagan was shot in 1981, if I remember right it was ’81, and Alexander Hague was the Secretary of State, and so there was a press briefing going on following the attempted assassination and the press briefing wasn’t going real well, and the secretary of state watching this from the situation room in the White House was like, “Well, I’m going up there because I’m in charge.” Really, he wasn’t, but that’s what he said, he came out and he was kind of angry and made this very blunt statement that, “As of now I’m in control here.” It wasn’t even the next in line of succession, it was the Vice President, who just was on his way back from a trip and was just going to be a few hours.
Jen Otremba: Right.
Bryan Strawser: But his actions could have settled things and instead it made it worse.
Jen Otremba: That’s a great example, actually.
Bryan Strawser: He made it worse, he certainly acted in time but he made the wrong decision.
Jen Otremba: The wrong action in time.
Bryan Strawser: The wrong action. History has shown us that that was not the best move, and that actually was one of the factors that led to his replacement the following year.
Jen Otremba: But I think that goes again to the emotions, the severe amount of emotions that were probably involved at that time, and all of the people so directly involved and so close to that situation were reacting emotionally.
Bryan Strawser: Yeah, I couldn’t agree more, and I think there’s a, we’ll find it and link it into the show notes, I think it was Atlantic magazine, it was, that had actually gotten hold of the tapes of discussions on the Vice President’s aircraft on the way back to DC and George H. W. Bush talking with his advisors about, “Here are the decisions that we’re going to need to make, and here are the issues that are going to come up, and how we’re going to need to reassure the public, and we’re going to have to deal with this.”
Jen Otremba: Sure.
Bryan Strawser: Very insightful, very good grasp of the strategic issues involved, was in great communication back to the White House, as I remember from reading this a few years ago, and very different from what you saw from Secretary Hague at the time.
Jen Otremba: Right. He was also in a different location and a different place and maybe he had a second to think about it.
Bryan Strawser: Right, right. So again, the three things you want to have in place; you want your plans, your checklist in place for those immediate issues that you want to deal with, those are your plans. You need your radar screen, your ability to look at the broader picture from a situational awareness perspective, and you need your framework and how do you deal with the things that you didn’t predict and how do you escalate and make those decisions, so that you never find yourself on the far end of a disaster saying-
Jen Otremba: What the-
Bryan Strawser: “How the F did I get there?”