A crisis management team within an organization has to be a team that is action-oriented, able to consume and triage a significant amount of information and make decisions and recommendations that move the incident or crisis situation forward.
In this episode of the Managing Uncertainty Podcast, Bryghtpath Principal & CEO Bryan Strawser discusses approaches to work through major issues and challenges during a crisis management team activation – and how to ensure that the team does not become an academic debating society.
Hi, folks. Welcome back to the Managing Uncertainty podcast. This is Bryan Strawser, principal and CEO at Bryghtpath. Today I want to talk a little bit about decision making during a crisis. In particular, I want to talk about just the interaction within a crisis management team when you’re in the middle of that crisis response. I want you to picture this for a moment to kind of set the stage. We’ve talked on previous episodes about the need to have a crisis management framework, about who should be at the table for those decisions and processes. You’re looking for this cross-functional crisis management team that includes teams like security, human resources, business continuity, crisis management, your business lines, facilities, information, technology, finance, and even lawyers. You start to picture this team sitting around the table or participating virtually and you’re moving through the crisis. First, you’re learning what it is and you’re learning about the impact on the company. Maybe you’re learning a little bit about how you got there. Probably thinking about some immediate mitigation activities. And then, the problems start to come in as you get moving. You start to be presented with a number of puzzles that you have to solve. Some of these may have been puzzles that you’ve seen before. You may have a building that’s been impacted, for example, and the building is not currently usable so you start thinking about well, the building has got to be evacuated. That’s probably already happened.
Now I got to think about how do I assess the building? How do I determine what kind of damage we have to deal with? How long might we have lost the use of this building? And we start to think about how do we get back into the building? What needs to happen for us to be able to do that? Maybe it’s available for immediate use, maybe there’s going to be a short period of time to do some cleanup and repair, or maybe it’s out of use for six to eight weeks. Or, maybe it’s destroyed. You start to be posed with these issues to deal with. The ones that you’ve seen before, the ones that the team’s experienced before, you’ve probably put together processes and procedures and a plan to be able to deal with this again because you’ve seen it. You experienced what you did before and you’re able to apply that to the crisis. The challenging part becomes when you’re confronted with something that you haven’t seen before. A problem that is unique or new, or unforeseen, as we see a lot of times in some of these situations. Now, as a crisis team, you’ve got to really talk through what is the answer to this question? How urgent, how imminent is it? Something that we need to deal with right now? It’s really easy to get sidetracked in this conversation.
What you don’t want to do is allow the crisis team to become a debating society. You cannot allow long, in-depth conversation in the middle of a response about dealing with just one aspect of the response. It can’t become an academic debating society. Here are some ways to think about how you can deal with this unknown problem that you’re confronted with and not detract from the overall crisis management response.
One way to do this is to assign an owner for the issue and have them go off with their team and others that need to be involved and come up with a solution that they can bring back to the table. This works well when there is one silo that really owns the problem soup to nuts. For example, our aforementioned facility problem. All right, well, your facilities team or your property management team or whatever you call them, your real estate team, they probably own this issue. Yes, there needs to be other folks at the table and yes, there’s a number of disciplines and subject matter experts from across the company that probably need to be a part of finding that solution, but I think it’s a good example of one where you can give this issue to your facilities representative and ask them to go figure out the solution within their organization and then come back and inform the group or get buy off from the corporate crisis management team. What do we need to do here? Here’s what we’re proposing to do. Do you accept this plan or should we take on a different prioritization?
Another option is to break up your crisis team into some subgroups and give them a timeframe to go work the problem and then come back and give us an answer on how they’re going to do that. You know, a good example of this, I think from a place that a lot of folks have seen, is in the movie Apollo 13, where the group that’s really managing what’s going on right now with the failed mission to the moon and trying to get these three astronauts back home alive is what’s happening in the mission control room with the crew that’s on duty. But, you might remember they had an air filter problem. The air filter problem is that the lunar excursion module couldn’t scrub enough carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere inside the lunar excursion module when there were three astronauts in there. They were also expecting the lunar excursion module to be used for just a day or two on the lunar surface rather than three guys in it for four or five days trying to get back to earth. The scrubber filters that allowed the poisonous carbon dioxide to be scrubbed out of that internal atmosphere, they were a different shape than the ones used in the command module.
So, they engineered a solution, but they did it by grabbing a bunch of guys who knew the systems on board the two spacecraft and they locked them in a room and said here’s everything that they’ve got up there with them. Figure out how to make this fit into the hole for this using nothing but that, the things that were on the table. They brought the solution back then to the mission control room when they were ready, and that’s the procedure they had the astronauts execute. Again, they didn’t allow the main response to be derailed by the problem-solving experience, the academic debating, the arguing, and the experimentation. They didn’t allow that to derail the mission. They moved it off into a room, they worked the problem, they came back with a solution to be able to do that.
A similar example from my own career, when I was the head of global crisis management for a large retailer there were a number of tornadoes that came into the part of the country and impacted a regional distribution center that fed product to 100, 125 stores or so. The distribution center was structurally okay, but one the challenges we ran into is there was no utility power and we did not have a generation farm large enough at the distribution center to do much more than provide life safety lighting and things along those lines.
The distribution team, rather than derail all of the crisis conversation for two days, literally went off and worked 24 hours straight with a number of engineers and operations folks and electrical engineers and others and came back and said I think we’ve come up with a way to bring in enough generation power to power the distribution center and move freight, but we’ve never done this before. We’ve written a procedure. We think it will work. We’re going to try and implement that if the crisis team approves. I thought it was a great example of taking the problem offline. Going and having the right people work the problem while the crisis mission continues and you don’t derail what’s going on. By the way, that solution worked, and then that became our standard way of dealing with a long term utility outage for a regional distribution center. It was quite ingenious and came about simply because we had to come up with a solution for this particular problem.
The other thing I want to address with just decision making during a crisis is it is important to make sure that there is a person that is in charge of the crisis situation. You might call them an incident commander, you might call them the headquarters incident leader, or the incident leader, or the crisis team leader, incident coordinator. It doesn’t matter to me what you call it, but there needs to be a responsible decision making authority that’s in that crisis management team and is able to make the decision so that the debate stops and you’re able to move the situation forward. What you don’t want to do is have this turn into an endless debate about what to do. As a crisis management leader, as a crisis subject matter expert, those of you listening to the podcast, you want to make sure that you’re crafting your process so you have that responsible leader and that when the discussion during the meetings about the response turns into a debating society, that you take control of the situation and either have the responsible body/person make the decision or come up with a group, send them off with a timeline, and have them come back with their proposed solution and a path for it.
That’s it for this week’s edition of the Managing Uncertainty podcast. Hope you can join us next week for our next episode, and join us every Thursday at 12:00 Central time for Bryghtpath live on our Facebook page at facebook.com/bryghtpath, where we talk about and deep dive into a crisis management business continuity or crisis communications topic of the week. We take your questions and answer them to the best of our ability. Join us there every Thursday at 12:00 PM Central time. Hope to see you there.