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Crisis management: ensuring resilience in an ever-changing threat landscape

(Image credit: Image Credit: alphaspirit / Shutterstock)

Risk has always been an everyday part of doing business, however, over the years, the sources of risk have changed and multiplied significantly. Much of that is down to the role that technology and data play in underpinning every aspect of modern business, and in more and more cases, providing the service or product that a business is built upon. When hit by a disruption in service, loss of data, extreme weather or malicious outside threats, the chaos that result can be devastating to operations, reputation and even a company’s future. 

A recent report has also shown that in 2018, almost nine out of ten UK businesses experienced a cybersecurity breach of some form, with a number of companies witnessing an increase in the frequency of cyber-attacks. While cyber-attacks range in severity, all have the potential to cause damage. Thanks to social media, end-users have become empowered to express their frustrations with service outages on a wide public platform. Strong leadership is more important now than ever to ensure resilience during a crisis. A business is only as resilient as its leaders; those who are prepared to respond in a crisis and instil confidence in a business’ stakeholders that all issues are in hand. But what makes a strong, resilient leader?

The difference between a crisis and a disruption

Here are four typical conditions that usually define a crisis:

  • There is a threat to an organisation; its customers and stakeholders; the general public; or the environment
  • There is an element of surprise. Either the type of incident or the impact that it’s having is beyond expectations
  • Existing response mechanisms that have been put in place are failing to cope, meaning they need to be refocused or changed completely. That implies reviewing situational understanding and any decisions taken, or resources allocation and adjusting business priorities
  • Significant strategic business decisions have to be made quickly to protect brand and reputation

What to do when crisis strikes

When a crisis occurs, the severity for each situation differs, but they all impact the ability for business operations to run “normally”. Speed is now key and it’s up to the executive leadership team to figure out a plan of action. To do that, there are five key questions that must be posed:

  • What happened?
  • Why are we here?
  • How are we going to get out of it?
  • What route are we going to take?
  • What things do we need to do to get there?

By their very nature, crises are mostly unexpected and their impact unknown. What you can count on is that a crisis will be complex and unstable and what were detailed plans may suddenly be missing a few elements. And that is the crucial difference between a crisis and an incident. For an incident, a business will most likely have prepared for it and have an agreed plan. When a crisis occurs, the scope of what was prepared for changes and plans have to be tweaked with only a limited amount of information available.

The race is then on and a rapid hunt for information takes place. The challenge is that on the first day of a crisis about 80 per cent of the information you are using may be wrong – you just don’t know which 80 per cent. It’s therefore important to ensure that you know which information you have is right and challenge, check, be hyper-critical, test assumptions, re-check, clarify and analyse. Don’t accept the first thing you hear as gospel and don’t make assumptions without assessing your basis for making them. This all needs to be done under time pressure and the reality is you’re not going to know everything you want to know or find out everything you want to find out. This is where strong, resilient executive leadership comes in – the ability to make decisions under pressure with incomplete information.

Always start with an effective response

It’s vital that the leadership team quickly accept the uncertainty of the situation. They then need to just as quickly bring an air of calm, authority and determination. Crisis situations engender strong psychological responses of fear, uncertainty and worry as well as panic, insecurity and anxiety. Demonstrating calm and authority, leadership teams need to help get people focused on the problem and finding a solution.

That means setting the right conditions to allow people to respond effectively. Give people confidence, build consensus and create the right team. This isn’t always the same group of people that will lead. Depending on the nature of the crisis, it’s important to include the right people for the job with the right set of skills.

Once the team has been created, it then needs information. Information management is crucial and leaders need to bring what information they can access into a format and a structure that provides a clear view of the situation. It will show what’s happened and what’s happening now so that they can figure out what to do and how they are going to do it. Demand for information will always be greater than the availability of the information, particularly at the start of the crisis. Having a history and current picture of the crisis will help leaders identify priorities and ultimately reach a decision or series of decisions. Most critically, effective information management allows the development of shared situational awareness – or everyone in the team being on the same page.

An analytical eye, confidence and instinct are key

In a crisis, there are two types of decision making that work hand-in-hand – analytical decision making and intuitive decision making. Analytical decision making implies having time, which means that intuitive decision making often (and naturally) plays more of a role in the early stages of a crisis. Some don’t like the idea of using intuition, having a “seat of the pants” feel to it, but “gut feel” is nothing more than experience and making decisions based on what you’ve seen before. What leaders do need to watch out for are cognitive biases. Recency, proximity and confirmation bias (looking for information that will reinforce your preconceptions) can all influence decision making. To be truly effective, resilient leadership has to be aware of where they are becoming victim to one of these biases. Best practice is to raise awareness of these biases when preparing the leadership team for a crisis so that they can identify them and know how to steer around.

Know when to make a move

Once a decision has been made, it’s important to follow the impact of that decision, communicating it out to the business and externally and then getting feedback on whether it’s worked. If it hasn’t, then a successful executive leadership team will have the confidence to change it. That isn’t easy and takes moral courage to take that step. Leaders must feel empowered to be able to change their minds and the direction they are taking as the situation and new facts come to light. Ignoring the facts and maintaining the same course will result in failure. 

What barriers do leaders face when responding to a crisis?

Communications is frequently where many crisis responses fall over. Effective communication is at the heart of successful crisis management. It requires a proactive approach and being on the front foot – effective communications cannot be achieved passively or defensively. The trouble is there are plenty of barriers to effective communications: language, jargon, accent, dialect, tone, technology, stresses, security, privacy, confidentiality.

It’s very easy for mixed messaging to take place. Just sending an email is not effective communications and even verbal communications need to be checked. To help at the strategic level, leaders should bring in the communications experts to help with creating messages for the variety of audiences that need to hear what you are saying: governments, partners, regulators, media, clients, customers, supply chain etc.

Failing to prepare is preparing to fail

Whilst it’s impossible to know what will happen when a crisis hits, there are things executive leadership teams can do to get them in the best place possible to respond successfully:

  • Bring in experts to deliver crisis management masterclasses
  • Adopt a coaching approach for exercises
  • Train with challenging and realistic scenarios that build on the key skills for crisis leadership
  • Vary exercise scenarios to address most significant (worst case, most likely, highest impact) organisational risks
  • Don’t start testing people who are not or have not been prepared for it

A crisis is a scary time for any business. But if managed right, it can also be an important learning opportunity. By showing resilience during a crisis, a business can not only maintain its reputation but also potentially improve it by showing its strength. The key is strong, effective leadership.

Chris Butler, Principal Consultant, Sungard Availability Services
Image Credit: alphaspirit / Shutterstock

Chris Butler is an expert advisor on in the field of organisational resilience, supporting clients to meet the business challenges of the 21st century, with a particular focus on cyber resilience.