Compare the crisis manager to the doctor; Why can the doctor make a correct diagnosis and make a treatment plan? Because he understands how the human body functions. Anatomy is crucial. This does not help much in the prevention of diseases because signals that something can go wrong are easily ignored, or underestimated. Similarly, firemen should know how forest fires start, develop and can be contained. They consider factors like temperature, soil, wind and moist for successfully fighting the fire, as well as for their own safety.
Whether it is a hurricane, a boardroom crisis, an employee committing fraud, or a flawed product killing clients, the anatomy of a crisis is usually the same. Unfortunately the is most clear in hindsight. Autopsy Post-mortem is easier than Awareness and Prevention.
Warning or Prodromal crisis stage, as Steven Fink calls it: there are always signals that an incident is likely to take place: the crisis itself is still hidden but a potential inflammatory situation exists. The faint smell of something smoldering is usually ignored, because of lack of preparation, but also in places where there is strong and ruthless leadership or a blame culture. Raising concerns does not win you popularity contests. Red flags are always there, before the crisis. The Jihadist on the German market had been looking for bomb manuals on the internet, made phone calls to IS – ignored, probably through information overload. The CEO of Lehmann brothers stopped inviting the company’s risk expert Madelyn Antoncic from meetings when she raised red flags on some big deals – ignored, most likely due to the arrogance of leadership and their feeling of invulnerability.
Trigger: the latent crisis can smoulder on for a long time. It needs either a trigger or a tipping point to escalate. The disgruntled employee just needs one more snipe remark or one more unfavorable review to turn into a fraudster, the cigaret but in the woods needs a gush of warm wind to properly ignite, the airbag needs a specific combination of circumstances to explode into the drivers face. Triggers and tipping points are not easily influenced, unless by the well prepared, who did not ignore the red flags in the first place. Triggers are also hard to spot of course because of complexity, non-linearity and interdependency. Remember the chaos theory and the butterfly effect?
Wildfire or acute crisis stage: The point of no return. The crisis has struck. Awareness sets in, sometimes only for a small insider group, but more likely for a much larger audience. There might be a very brief time window to take control of the situation, limit the damage and keep visibility to a minimum. This period used to be called “the golden hours of crisis response”; the five hours or so that the company could use to prepare a response. Now it is a matter of minutes before social media, journalists, lawyers and politician pick up the news.
In a previous blog we called this the Command, Communicate and Cope phase. Now the fire jumpers should arrive. The insiders have the tendency to be caught by surprise, freeze, and stonewall or downplay the crisis. This is bound to backfire, both in terms of coping with the crisis itself (someone needs to put out this fire… Now) and in terms of the media- and reputation backlash (one it is out there, there is no stopping it, just dealing with it).
Chronic crisis stage: The stage of Corrective actions. The fire is under control, the fire jumpers are replaced by regular firemen, since it will take some time for it be extinguished completely. In some crises the chronic phase can drag on for years, and the aftermath can be as deadly as the acute crisis itself. Whether it is the famine after the earthquake, or the litigation after the exploding airbag, it is still all hands on deck. The aim of course is to survive this stage as well, and put out the fire once and for all and send the firemen back to their barracks. Once that is done, it is time for Recovery of lost assets Compensation for damages. Lessons learned from post-mortems will help prevent and prepare.
Resolution. Back to ‘business as usual’. Except it is probably not exactly going to be as it used to be. People will be apprehensive, there might still be damages, court cases or reputation issues. The impact (marketeers call it the “halo effect”) can last years. At the same time there might be positive effects. If the crisis was handled in an effective and sympathetic way, new opportunities might arise. After a forest fire, a new and more interesting landscape develops quickly. If a house burns down the newly built replacement might be more modern, equipped with better preventive measures.
Understanding the anatomy helps in planning, preparing and dealing with the next one.