COVID-19 Is Changing How We Plan For and Manage Crises

June 2020
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No one knows when the COVID-19 crisis will end, and we can only speculate about how it will change society, the economy and people’s lives and careers over the long term. 

But one thing is certain: COVID-19 will fundamentally alter how businesses, governments, public institutions and their leaders plan for and manage crises. 

In fact, the pandemic has already yielded some early lessons that will help organizations emerge stronger and more resilient than before.

No one could have anticipated, let alone planned for, the massive disruption the coronavirus has wrought, or the incredible velocity with which the disease has circled the globe. 

Many organizations that had invested in comprehensive pandemic-response plans found they couldn’t implement them fast enough to outpace the accelerating crisis. Other organizations saw their carefully crafted crisis protocols repeatedly upended as events evolved. 

With the benefit of hindsight we can see that rather than simply creating more detailed crisis plans, organizations could have learned from epidemiologists and worked to build immunity to future crises — biological and otherwise. 

Crisis planning prepares organizations to respond when the unexpected happens. Crisis-immunization strategies, on the other hand, seek to prevent crises from occurring in the first place. These strategies uncover and proactively address the root causes of crises — such as the brittle supply chains and overreliance on outsourced labor that caught companies flat-footed as the coronavirus spread and international borders slammed shut.

A well-thought-out, thoroughly tested crisis plan remains a must. But actively heading off otherwise-preventable crises significantly reduces an organization’s exposure to operational and reputational risks. This proactive approach also frees up time, money and brainpower that can used to prepare for more complex threats that can’t be neutralized, such as the coronavirus pandemic.

Rethinking crisis teams 

Leaders might be tempted to involve themselves in every crisis decision. But when a crisis crosses borders as COVID-19 has, the centralized, command-and-control model of most crisis plans might prove dangerously shortsighted. 

In some cases, it’s appropriate to decentralize crisis leadership by designating teams to perform separate functions — such as fighting immediate fires, delivering vital intelligence from the front lines and keeping the company’s long-term growth plans on track.

These designated groups could include a team that represents major corporate functions and sets overall priorities, assimilates incoming data, allocates people and resources and makes the short-term tactical decisions required to restore operations during a crisis. 

Another team might comprise a network of local leaders and subject-matter experts who are in touch with stakeholders and can provide a clear, continuously updated picture of what’s happening during the crisis. This team will share feedback from customers, employees and other vital groups; help shape messages; and ensure that communications reach and resonate with intended audiences. 

When crisis leadership is decentralized, another team can be designated to plot a course toward a strong, sustainable future for the enterprise. 

 Streamlining decision-making 

In times of crisis, people are motivated to act. But when emotions run high, information is limited and uncertainty reigns. People need a simple framework to help them act purposefully and make quick, sound decisions. 

For their part, leaders must define and communicate the organization’s priorities so that everyone understands what is important and what is not. Early on, these 3–5 clearly articulated priorities will likely include ensuring the safety of employees, restoring critical operations and caring for customers.

Together with the company’s core values, these priorities serve as touchstones to guide decision-making, prevent decision paralysis and help managers make smart trade-offs when conflicts arise. 

Knowing when to hold

In psychology, “holding” describes the ways in which an individual contains and interprets the environment in times of uncertainty. In this sense, containing means the ability to ease the distress of others, and interpreting refers to how an individual helps others make sense of uncertain situations. Whether leaders hold those around them in a crisis is measured by how they reassure employees, keep them informed and unite them in purpose. 

The best holders use facts to assure workers that the organization can weather the storm. These leaders help employees interpret conflicting information and give them clear direction about their roles and their responsibility to care for themselves and their families.

Holding is contagious. When leaders hold, they encourage those around them to hold, too. Leaders might be remembered for their charisma or vision, but it’s how they “hold” us when the chips are down that endears them to us and cements our loyalty and trust. 

Caring for ourselves

During crises, we have to remember to take care of ourselves, too. As bombs fell on London during World War II, Winston Churchill is said to have taken two-hour naps every afternoon. By some accounts, his daily siestas revived his mental balance, energy and spirits, and also inspired confidence in his staff that the situation was not as dire as it seemed, and that better days lay ahead.

Whatever form of exercise or relaxation you prefer, maintaining a personal self-care routine while bombs are (figuratively) falling does more than keep our minds and bodies in shape and replenish our emotional reserves. It also boosts our self-confidence and sense of control, and encourages others to do the same. 

photo credit: andriy onufriyenko

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