Strategic level decision makers often assume they will be able to manage a crisis well, purely because they make “difficult and risky decisions” every day. In theory, crisis decision-making should follow the standard decision process of: assess the situation, formulate various options or strategies and implement a choice. Often however, this doesn’t happen.
In reality, crisis teams subject to immense, unique and “wicked” pressures; the levels of uncertainty, lack of information, dynamic changes, time bound activities, and, above all expectations of accountability, are often so high as to be unprecedented.
One pervasive trap that we often see strategic crisis management teams fall into as a result of these pressures, is decision avoidance. This happens because the teams have to make extremely difficult, yet important decisions based on very little or incomplete information, and of which the consequences of different courses of action are either unknown or equally unattractive. However, due to the inherent time pressure of any fast-moving crisis, the choice must be made; and once it is made, there is rarely an opportunity to go back.
The consequences these decisions have on the way in which the crisis develops is potentially enormous, and therefore so are the pressures experienced. This is especially true if the decision turns out (with the great benefit of hindsight!) to have been the wrong (or “less right” choice). So enormous in fact, that the default stakeholder response to having made an alleged wrong decision is often demands for the CEO’s resignation.
It’s not a huge surprise then, that these psychological pressures lead strategic decision makers to avoid having to make the decision altogether. Assuming responsibility for inaction – an event that never happened, is perceived as less damaging than assuming responsibility for a wrong decision that ends up going horribly (or even slightly) wrong. Decision makers therefore either delay the choice until it is too late to address the issue satisfactorily, or talk around the subject and formulate various options and strategies, without ever committing to a course of action.
An example of the former in which decision delay occurred, was the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes by the Metropolitan Police at Stockwell Underground station in London on July 22, 2005 – de Menezes was mistaken for a fugitive involved in a failed bomb attempt. Whilst ultimately, Cressida Dick, Gold Commander of the operation on the day, made a decision (and did so on the basis of the information known to her at the time), the situation was one where delay at earlier stages of the operation allowed for the situation to escalate so severely in threat terms, that she was forced to make a wicked choice – “shoot to kill the suspect, or don’t”. Originally, the instructions from Gold Command were to “prevent Menezes from boarding a train”. Had the decision to arrest or apprehend the witness been made earlier (while he was being pursued on a bus to the station, or while surveillance officers were sat next to the suspect on the train), Commander Dick would not have had to face such an extreme decision.
Avoiding the avoidance trap
So how can strategic decision makers get to grips with the pressures experienced in a crisis and avoid the decision avoidance trap? The optimal way for achieving this is through exposure to simulated crisis environments, where the pressures experienced in a real crisis are recreated, and where the CMT becomes familiarized with how the consequences of their decisions (or lack thereof) impact the scenario and dictate the trajectory of their response. If executed properly in an open learning environment, exposure to these pressures will serve to build the CMT’s expertise and illustrate to them that crisis decisions are not just high risk “business as usual” decisions.
Read more about the tripwires and trampolines of crisis decision making here