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Creative Crisis Management
The modern workplace is dynamic, complex and ever-evolving. It can be
difficult enough just to get through an ordinary working week, but the
pressure really begins to mount as soon as anything goes wrong. And no
matter how much managers believe they have everything under control,
no one is immune from crisis.
From IT meltdowns to riots, from industrial accidents to fraud, unforeseen
events can have a devastating effect on organisations large and small.
Not only do these events pose significant threats to the continuing
operation of the business, they also stand to place significant emotional
and psychological strains on the people who work in it. And while some
crises are large-scale, immediate and obvious, others can creep up on an
organisation in subtle ways that are much harder to anticipate.
Given the scale of these challenges, it can be tempting to sink into a
kind of helpless resignation. But there is actually a huge amount that
organisations can do to prepare for crisis and respond to it. And while
some losses may be permanent after a disaster, the experience of crisis –
properly handled – can leave those involved with a renewed sense of their
own resilience and determination.
“When written in Chinese, the
word ‘crisis’ is composed of
two characters – one represents
danger, and the other represents
John F. Kennedy, US President (1917–1963)
“Watch out for emergencies. They
are your big chance.”
Fritz Reiner, Hungarian conductor (1888–1963)
“There can’t be a crisis next week.
My schedule is already full.”
Henry Kissinger, American politician (born 1923)
Creative Crisis Management 1Workforce Development Specialists ...Increasing Profits, Performance and Reducing Sickness Absence W. www.fullyfocusedsolutions.co.uk
Thinking about crisis
One thing that we know about crisis is that it closes down
people’s capacity to think clearly. The latest findings in
neuroscience show us how sudden and intense stress is
actually registered in a part of the brain that is not even
capable of rational creative thought.
As soon as we are placed under intense pressure, human
beings tend to focus on one thing and one thing only, and
that’s survival. They may do this in constructive ways, such
as organising themselves to get out of a burning building.
Or they may do it in a chaotic way which actually makes the
If we take an event like the Hillsborough Football disaster
in 1989, for instance, we see that unforeseen developments
can throw planning into disarray, setting off a chain of events
that cannot be controlled. Investigations into the tragedy
revealed that match organisers failed to understand the
crowd dynamics at the beginning of the day. In an attempt
to deal with the unexpected surge of Liverpool fans, people
were forced into confined spaces on the terraces, leading to
a crush at one end of the stadium.
As the pressure mounted, communication broke down,
decision-makers either panicked or froze, and the chain of
command between stadium officials and police collapsed.
The contingency plans that were in place could not deal
with the rapidly unfolding reality, which led to a fragmented
response to the developing events. Almost 100 people died
Close analysis of many crises also reveals that while technical
mistakes in response to unforeseen events may be to blame
on the surface, the underlying root causes may be much
harder to spot, lying embedded within an organisation’s
In the investigation following the explosion of the Challenger
Space Shuttle in 1986, it eventually emerged that engineers
knew about faulty parts months before take-off. It was also
established, however, that a culture had developed within
NASA that made people feel unable to speak up about
Creative Crisis Management 2
perceived problems. The reasons for this were many and
varied, but the overwhelming pressure to deliver a functional
space programme combined with a fear of being ostracised
if they spoke up drove many engineers into silence.
Both Hillsborough and the Challenger disaster show that
people under intense pressure begin to make bad decisions.
This can happen both before a crisis, when people fail to
plan adequately and clearly identify the risks that lie ahead,
and it can happen during a crisis, when communication and
flexibility collapse into chaos and incoherence.
In both disasters, it is also important to notice that early
warnings of trouble were either ignored or not passed on. In
some instances, people simply felt they couldn’t speak up.
Creative Crisis Management 3
While it will never be possible to anticipate every risk that
you and your team face, it is more than possible – essential,
in fact – to ensure that when disaster strikes, it does not
come as a complete surprise. Harvard Business School
suggests the following steps:
Identify potential crises. One step you can take right now
is to pull out a piece of paper and write down the ten worst
things that could happen in your organisation. It doesn’t
matter how far-fetched they are at this stage. The important
thing is that you’ve thought about the threats that you face.
Potential perils might include accidents and natural events,
health and environmental disasters, technical meltdowns,
economic and market downturns or violence. It is useful to
consult as widely as possible when auditing potential crises.
You may be the manager, but you may be unaware of a lot of
what’s going on in your organisation.
The next step is to prioritise possible crises. You do this
by looking at both the impact of the potential disaster and
its probability. While an asteroid strike may be devastating,
there’s very little chance it will happen. The loss of a major
account, however, may not devastate your company, but it
is much more likely to happen. Doing these calculations will
spare you spending precious resources needlessly.
Deal with the small stuff . Many crises start out as small
problems. From minor technical glitches to communication
difficulties between key personnel, a lot of problems can be
solved relatively easily, as long as they are address promptly.
If you just hope they will go away on their own, however, you
run the risk of seeing those small problems escalate into
Learning to make sense
As we have seen, then, crises are driven by both technical
factors, such as faulty equipment and inaccurate contingency
plans, and human factors, such as a breakdown in thinking
and communication. It follows, then, that robust crisis
management must address both.
On the technical side, this means ensuring that your team is
well trained and is using well-designed equipment, accurate
operating manuals and checklists and is briefed in relevant
standard operating procedures.
The human side can be harder to achieve, but organisational
psychologists agree that it means creating an atmosphere in
teams in which people feel they can speak up without fear
of retaliation. It also means that managers remain flexible
and accessible and are willing to listen to different points
If a climate of open and healthy communication prevails
during times of calm, your team will be much better placed
to do what researchers describe as “sense-making”, that
is to say they are able to adapt and understand rapidly
evolving environments and demands.
According to research conducted by Amy Edmonson, an
associate professor at Harvard Business School, resilient
teams that are able to learn quickly from experience are those
whose members feel comfortable making suggestions,
trying things that might not work, pointing out potential
problems, and admitting mistakes. By contrast, when
people feel uneasy acting this way, the learning process is
stifled and teams run the risk of experiencing a collapse in
sense-making in response to acute stress.
Apart from acts of violence and terrorism, disasters are
more often than not caused by oversight and inaction. If you
feel that your organisations procedures and policies have
become vague and out-of-date, it’s time for a reappraisal.
Plan, plan, plan. Contingency planning involves doing as
much thinking and organising as possible before a crisis
strikes. It is essential, therefore, to create a crisis response
team that can take the list of potential crises that your
organisation faces, fully assess the scope of the problems
and develop a flexible set of response plans. These plans
should include a commun