Joining the crisis dots – How simulation exercising can create a culture of crisis sensitivity

By Dominic Cockram

As a crisis dotscrisis management professional, I have worked with many different crisis teams over the years. What has become apparent is that, in the majority of cases, those conducting the operational response to a crisis (and by that I mean at both the bronze/operational and silver/tactical levels) have little understanding of the strategic drivers, priorities and concerns, and potential challenges of the executive or ‘gold’ level.

This lack of understanding can fail to give those protecting the organisation’s license to operate what they really need to fulfil their role. Resulting in delayed escalation, incorrect assumptions and the transmission of skewed information to the top.

In the emergency services, such a lack of understanding exists to a far lesser extent. Clarity and mutual understanding between teams and leaders is secured by enhanced levels of training at every tier. Similarly, a key part of training in the armed forces is in understanding ‘higher commander’s intent’ at every command level. Alternatively known as, ‘what does your boss want you to achieve and what matters to him or her’. In essence, what are their ‘triggers’ of concern?

As both these examples show, those crisis professionals working in ‘crisis mode’ on a daily basis see ‘knowing the top team’ as a key objective and integrate it into their training. Of course, this is not so easy if your day job is running a supermarket, building tower blocks, running trains or delivering energy. The time available to businesses (and even many governmental departments) to train their staff in crisis management is far less than they need to operate at the same level of efficiency and understanding as those who operate solely in ‘crisis mode’ because it is the very nature of their business.

But what can the military and emergency services teach us about information management during a crisis?

Too often in post-crisis reviews, missed opportunities to share key information and delayed escalation are cited. These are usually because those who held key information at the critical time did not understand the importance of what they knew at that particular moment. At best, these failings can result in reputation damage to the company and at worst, loss of life. In each case, these missed opportunities are incredibly important and often intimately related to a lack of understanding at the operational and tactical levels of what the strategic levels needed, required, wanted or were concerned about.

One part of the problem relates to the way in which information is managed, while the other is simply not realising what senior management sees as a priority. When all around you is chaos, your capacity to absorb critical issues as “simply information” can grow. The importance staff put on significant events may dwindle given their new context of surrounding chaos. This is a time of maximum danger. To miss the critical point to alert those above you – to give them a heads up and shout “watch out” – is to put the whole business at risk. All because of a lack of basic understanding about “what matters” at the top of the shop.

Here are a few top tips for ensuring that the correct information reaches the top at those critical moments:

1. Bring strategic, operational and tactical team leaders together and conduct multiple scenario analysis sessions. This can ensure that everyone is comfortable with various trigger points and “key areas of concern”.

Building an experience based understanding is so, so important because when a crisis hits, there will be many shades of grey requiring a judgement call. As with all decision-making, experience from scenario workshops will enable responders to gain a feel for what to do as well as how to value the information and its strategic importance.

Such sessions also empower those in less senior roles that the top team would rather be stood up too soon, than too late. It can take real nerve for someone not on the board to mobilise it out-of-hours and on their own opinion. However, the adage “he who hesitates is lost” is only too true in this context.

2. Use simulation exercises to validate thinking on the escalation criteria. Such simulations will give responders an idea of the complexities and conundrums of handling information – or lack of information – at critical moments in a safe environment. To know and understand what is “strategically important information” is vital at every level.

3. Emphasise the “Heads up – stand by – stand up – stand down” approach to maintaining freely open channels of information between teams. A simple “you should be aware that this has happened but no action is needed at this time” can be hugely helpful to those above, build trust in those below and ensure a far better and more effective level of response.

Too often senior executives take for granted that staff in more operational and tactical positions understand just how sensitive they are to media and reputation. This understanding is often complicated further as these sensitivities evolve according to what is happening in the media, markets or even strategically within the business.

In most organisations, more work is needed to build this understanding and comfort at every level. Nonetheless, by staging simple workshops and simulation exercises with the right audiences, operational teams can gain a clearer understanding of senior management’s triggers of concern and avoid missing or misunderstanding them, and providing them with the information they need.

For more information on managing information in the heat of a crisis, please see the following blog posts:

Managing the upward flow of information in a crisis – what matters most?

Situational awareness – supporting the CEO’s critical decision making in a crisis

About Dominic Cockram

Founder and MD of Steelhenge. Pioneer of simulation exercises with over 20 years experience in business continuity and crisis management. Dominic is an experienced speaker determined to make the world a more resilient place.

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