The more disturbing the situation, the stronger the urge to take refuge in familiar procedures.

The more disturbing the situation, the stronger the urge to take refuge in familiar procedures. When suddenly faced with a catastrophe, crisis managers tend to try and follow familiar systems. Such procedures are usually utterly inappropriate in the face of a situation that is anything but familiar.

Selecting and training a crisis management team (CMT) is vital, when decisions have to be made quickly. If an engine fails with an aircraft approaching take-off speed, there will not be a wide ranging discussion before a decision to lift off, or hit the emergency brakes is made. What happens will not represent the pilot’s momentary whim. The reflexes that come into play are based on prior preparation.

Organisations which want to survive a crisis and prosper after it, need prior preparation to deal with any corporate drama. Crisis management is a dynamic front-end concept that operates in a ‘quick time’ environment: one where you take actions within minutes, rather than debate them at length.

Establishing your CMT
There are a number of key issues:

  • When you are analysing data and researching the best options, keep your eye on the ball. Plans, recovery options and supply chain goodwill count for nothing if executives cannot switch to quick time thinking and form a CMT immediately. Selection, training and testing count for everything.
  • Getting board level agreement is not enough. You need commitment and hands-on involvement.
  • Manage your risks properly - the key to a successful CMT is realising that containing a crisis is more effective than recovering from a disaster. This is not a grudge purchase. It is linked to profit retention.
  • Ensure your CMT is operational, not just a mechanism to reassure people when things are calm.
  • Seek out what is important and then work out how to measure it. At the start of the Vietnam War, the US army realised that the number of enemy dead invariably exceeded their own. It was an easy measurement, and thus was used to calculate who would win the war, and how soon. In this, the US army made the mistake of finding something to measure and then making it important, rather than the other way around.
  • Remember, things are not always what they seem. You may think that you have found the answer, but a new perspective might reveal a different truth.

    Many crises are not sudden and can actually become catalysts for successful restructuring. It has been said that crises breed life, whereas order breeds habit. Opportunities to demonstrate this can be productive, provided your response has been tested in advance and is flexible and designed for crisis limitation, rather than assuming total disaster.

    Crisis prevention is considerably more effective than disaster recovery. However, many organisations are encouraged by consultants to spend a time and money on recovery options, without first looking at what they are doing to minimise risks.

    Most disasters are caused by organisations that fail to prevent a crisis from getting worse, only waking up when things have deteriorated to the point of calamity. However, you can train people to act with confidence and skill at the initial stages of an incident to stop it spreading.

    Food safety case study
    In 1999, events in Belgium showed the importance of this. In the spring of that year, dioxin was introduced into the Belgian food supply via contaminated animal fat used in feeds supplied to Belgian, French and Dutch farms. High levels of dioxin were found in both meat and eggs. A food safety scandal followed, filled with drama and public outcry. There were investigations, the destruction of tons of eggs and meat products, and huge economic losses.

    The Belgian government’s major error in managing the crisis was in not promptly going public, resulting in accusations of a self-serving cover-up. The government’s strategy became the focus of intense criticism, and the issue of poor quality control in the food and feed industries was sidelined.

    This incident illustrates the basic components required to manage any food-related crisis:

  • effective and rapid surveillance systems
  • effective communication about the nature of risk
  • a credible, open and responsive regulatory system
  • demonstrable efforts to reduce uncertainty
  • evidence that actions match words.

    Research at Oxford University (Knight & Pretty) found clear evidence that a good CMT was far more significant than catastrophe insurance. If an organisation is perceived as competent in preventing chaos in a crisis, it demonstrably leads to an actual increase in share value .

    Therefore, organisations need to ask if their existing CMT plans are crisis friendly. Are they capable of being read by someone actually in a crisis, suffering from the ‘uns’ ( unexpected, unscheduled, unprecedented, unimaginable)? The plans must inform the reader, not simply protect the author.

    You may think you are looking at a minor catastrophe, but can you predict what lies concealed? Take the example of the ship Mont-Blanc that exploded in Halifax on 7 December 1917. She had been burning for 20 minutes and people were watching at their windows. The explosion caused some 2000 deaths and thousands of injuries from shattering glass. No one knew that the vessel was transporting a large quantity of explosives.

    A sequential crisis plan that grades the escalation and and de-escalation of incidents should enable organisations to measure both prevention and recovery. Sustaining organisational commitment and progress is more important than an over indulgence in disaster recovery alone.

    In many potential catastrophes, speedy intervention by a quick thinking CMT has made the difference between sinking and swimming. CMT leadership, like swimming, cannot be learned just by reading about it. It is best done by trying it out - before you are thrown into the deep end. So, who needs crisis management teams? Perhaps you do.

    Peter Power is managing director, Visor Consultants Ltd, E-mail:


  • Avoid analysis paralysis, when too few people, under funded and wrongly placed in an organisation, try to tackle too much data on their own.
  • Avoid a Catch 22 situation. A CMT team prepared only for ‘headline’ cases may fail if a more mundane disaster occurs, but a CMT plan that is overly concerned with the most probable may fail if fate deals out one of the nightmare scenarios.

    Base workable and sustainable CMT measures on the following:

  • Knowing how to select team leaders (you will need several since no-one can work for more than a few hours). Selection should be based on competence, rather than routine position. A skilled outside consultant (whose career in not on the line) may do this with you - never for you.
  • Ensuring that the team that is ready and willing to follow. If not, do not attempt to become the leader. No leader equals no team and vice versa.
  • The team leader keeping in balance three key considerations (courtesy John Adair): team needs - what does the group require, as a whole, to work? task needs - what exactly is the job to be done? individual needs - what does each individual require to work at best performance?
  • Obtaining crucial board level commitment and involvement. The CEO does not always have to be the leader - different situations require different styles - but the routine boss maintains authority by delegating and resuming at the correct time.
  • The team working in harmony. Psychometric tests can help to work out the best combinations. Avoid lots of people who think the same. You need someone to push, someone to challenge, someone to reflect and so on. It is best to have people capable of working under extreme pressure.
  • Identifying exactly the threats and risks facing you. Work these out in advance and mitigate, or at least reduce exposure.
  • Identifying what critical functions and assets must be protected above others. Protecting reputation is usually the most important consideration.

  • Developing a decision matrix for the crises that are not black and white, and then testing how long it will take to re-start key functions elsewhere at a time of crisis.
  • Having systems in place to warn of impending crises - 90% of UK disasters are ‘quiet catastrophes’, such as contamination, water leaks, and growing fires rather than explosions.
  • Calling in expert support. Too many plans are in the form of intellectual guidance, rather than action oriented. Many organisations have a ‘blame undercurrent’ that may prevent employees from activating a plan on honest suspicion alone. A specialist consultant with real experience of crises management can help.
  • Understanding that preventing chaos in a crisis prevents a catastrophe from sliding into a disaster.
  • Understanding the difference between planning, managing and leading.