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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.


  • 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

    situation worse.

    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

    that day.

    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

    Practical guidelines

    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

    significant crises.

    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

    of view.

    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