Preparing for crisis
Episode 3 of 5
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“You’re not gonna be reading through reams of documentation and page after page of what your policy is for dealing with a crisis.” / Extract of Episode 4 of 5: “Planning”.
00:00:08 [Dave Cope]: Decision making is an absolutely critical skill in incident and crisis management. I would start by asking yourself, if you’re a crisis manager or coordinator or a part of that team, how comfortable are you making decisions without the full set of facts and the information available at that time? Do you understand how your decision making on a personal level, on a team level, is affected by my stress and pressure that an incident crisis can bring along?
00:00:41 [Dr David Rubens]: Within a crisis event, it is likely that every aspect of that event will be overwhelming in terms of decision making. The speed, the impact, the escalation. It is unstable, it is outside their experience, and there are no solutions that make sense to them within that context or that environment.
00:01:02 [Dave Cope]: Just review your own processes, how do they support the decisions you’re making? When it comes to six months time or a year’s time, looking at, you’ve got a regulator or board members or, heaven forbid, a criminal trial looking at that process and your decision making trial, your decision making process.
00:01:28 [Dave Cope]: Just by having a position of leadership in an organization doesn’t necessarily make you an ideal crisis leader capable of decision making under pressure in a different level of business environment to what the normal is.
00:01:49 [Rosanna Voulters]: Teams feel more comfortable jumping into action and to actually feel as though they’re doing something to fix the problem, rather than actually sitting around and deliberating and trying to understand what that issue is.
00:02:01 [Steve Hather]: Companies tend to sort of jump from getting a team together and then jump to communicating. The missing bit right in the middle is the assessment of the incident. Make sure you understand what those key concerns are.
00:02:14 [Rosanna Voulters]: To understand and have a shared understanding of what the situation is before you can actually start getting into analyzing it. Thinking about what the potential impacts are to the business, and then you can come up with what the potential options are for resolution and then you can make a well informed decision.
00:02:31 [Dr David Rubens]: The issue about crisis management is that crises are almost always sudden and unexpected events. They are often unprecedented in their scale, scope, and impact, and what this means is that the people within the organization and the organization itself often enter into a state of shock where they fail to truly understand what has happened, what the significance of those events are, and what are the actions they need to deal with it. The likelihood is that they do not have a model of response that they can consider when trying to choose the best options.
00:03:06 [Steve Hather]: One of the things we often see missing in most crisis management plans is good guidance when it comes to developing a response strategy. A response strategy should give guidance to the company as a whole as well as to the crisis management team, to focus the attention on what’s really important. What’s really important is making sure you balance the long-term interests of the business, with the concerns and expectations of external stakeholders.
00:03:39 [Dr Nicola Power]: There are two types of goals that people can use when they make decisions. Approach goals, which are about maximizing outputs, and avoid goals, which are about satisfysing to minimum standards. What we found in our simulation, which is based around a terrorist attack, was that approach teams were actually much slower at making decisions overall. So we expected them to make faster decisions, they’re the ones who want to get in there and save life.
00:04:03 [Dr Nicola Power]: However we found that this was not the case. We looked at this in more detail by actually breaking down the different types of decisions, and what we found was that early in the incident, when there was relative low task complexity, the approach teams did make much faster decisions.
00:04:19 [Dr Nicola Power]: However when the incident got much more complex later on, it was the avoid teams that then started to make much better decisions. So in terms of what this means for decision inertia, it suggests that we need to train individuals to be more flexible in their approach to goals, so rather than having a rigid adherence to a type of goal they should be able to be flexible to the demands of the situation and change their goals accordingly.
00:04:42 [Dr Nicola Power]: Secondly it argues that in complex crisis situations, it might be suggestible to try and use goals that are more avoid oriented, so satisfying to minimum standards and maybe picking the least worst option rather than the best option, because this might meet the context of a crisis and align with it much more clearly.
00:05:04 [Rosanna Voulters]: There’s always going to be a challenge with the amount of time that you have. You do want to slow things down. You always have more time than you think you do. You do need to make sure that when you’re going through that process of doing the crisis assessment and understanding what it is that you’re actually dealing with, that you take some time to understand what the actual problem is, and then you can think about what the potential options are that are available to you and then you can make a well-informed decision.
00:05:31 [Rosanna Voulters]: But obviously that needs to be balanced. You don’t want to get to a point where you’re sitting around and deliberating for a long period of time but you do want to make sure that decisions are being made.
00:05:43 [Dave Cope]: The reality is, you know, a crisis is going to last quite a long time. And are all the execs going to give up all their time 24/7 for the next eight weeks? Or are they going to be a group, a team that is put together with different functions and specialisms who manage the information, the assimilation, the situational awareness and we put in front of that decision making authority, those execs, we put to them
00:06:15 [Dave Cope]: And we say “look if these are your options, your options are action, and these are decision reviews that we want you to make.” So it’s much more efficient way of working. It allows them to separate themselves from the actual crisis management team and be really strategic and take a much bigger view about what’s going on.
00:06:37 [Dr David Rubens]: For a crisis event, the event itself may be unprecedented, it may be something that they have never experienced and the organization has never experienced. And a tragic example of that sort of situation was the Grenfell Tower fire. Although the responding fire officers have spent a lifetime gathering experience and understanding of how to deal with very serious fires, the truth is the Grenfell Tower was so far outside their experience that nothing that they knew and nothing they had experienced could allow them to build a picture of what actually was happening.
00:07:10 [Dr David Rubens]: In technical terms, they lost their sense of sense making. What does it mean?
00:07:22 [Dr Nicola Power]: So one of the things I look at in my research is how decision making derails under pressure. And what we identified work with the emergency services is this often wasn’t due to the fact that emergency services made the wrong decision, but often they were criticized for making decisions too slowly. So, for example, in the Kerslake report which evaluated the response to the terror attack at the Ariana Grande concert, the fire service are criticized for playing no meaningful role for over two hours.
00:07:48 [Dr Nicola Power]: So we decided to try and investigate why this was. Traditional decision theory suggests that people will seek to avoid choices, so they cognitively disengage with choices, when they’re faced with pressure. But we identified that this didn’t fit with an emergency where a commander doesn’t really have the opportunity to disengage.
00:08:06 [Dr Nicola Power]: So we ran an interview study where we were asking commanders about their experiences and dealing with challenging incidents. What we found is that commanders described that they didn’t disengage with choices, so they didn’t avoid them, but instead they engaged in intense cognitive deliberation and we termed this ‘decision inertia’.
00:08:25 [Dr Nicola Power]: So redundant deliberation over a problem for no gain. This was linked to negative anticipatory thinking. So negative consequences for action. “What happens if I make a decision and it leads to a bad outcome?” But equally being aware that negative consequences could arrive for inaction. So “if I don’t do anything the incident could escalate out of control.”
00:08:44 [Dr Nicola Power]: What we concluded from this was that individuals in crises don’t avoid decisions but instead they engage in decision inertia. So they failed to act despite intense cognitive deliberation.
Interviewees in alphabetical order
RW Consulting Solutions Limited
Associate Director – Communications
Group Corporate Security
Director Crisis Response
Dr Nicola Power
Lecturer in Psychology
Dr David Rubens
Institute of Strategic Risk Management
RW Consulting Solutions Limited
Reputation, Crisis & Resilience
RW Consulting Solutions Limited