Crisis Management: How preparation can save your organisation

I’m just coming back from an 48 hour staff training exercise. For a change, we didn’t train a military staff, but a group of international Executive MBA graduates. As part of their curriculum, they receive training in crisis management. The course is their last big challenge before graduation. The exercise took place in Fortress Saint-Maurice, 300 meters below ground. Self-evidently, down there is neither mobile phone reception nor luxury accommodation.

The definition of a crisis, in this non-military context, is a threat to an organization caused by an emergency running out of hand. Characteristics are immense time pressure, public attention, often enforced by media, and a blurred situation due to missing or wrong information.

IMD Business School, located in Lausanne, is one of the top five business schools worldwide. Only recently, the school has been ranked number two by Financial Times for their executive education program. IMD’s ambition is to develop the future global leaders and their strategy is consequently aligned to this vision. The approach builds on high-impact experience and practical work, rather than extensive lectures. The idea to partner with Swiss Armed Forces for training in crisis management grew out of the ambition to always ‚learn from the best‘.

The training was intense and inspiring for all parties involved. The 45 graduates were organized in four teams with eleven members each. Each team formed a staff structure, led by a chief-of-staff (COS) and supported by an assistant-chief-of-Staff (ACOS). The other team members built the functional cells, such as communication, operations and commercials. The scenario underlying the exercise was a generic airport. The severity and complexity of challenges during the exercise built-up more and more, culminating in a peak of passengers and aircrafts to be handled while the weather condition got adverse, a potential fuel contamination threatened operations and diplomatic flights had to be prioritized.

In order to succeed, a comprehensive set of processes, techniques and tools was introduced. Absorbing that much information was only possible because the graduates were intrinsically motivated to learn, practise and quickly improve based on the lessons learned out of the experience made.

The following procedures, techniques and tools were covered by the training:

  • The main process is to monitor the situation by holding recurring situation briefings. In a crisis, the pace of the staff is clocked by the briefing cycle. Besides updating the staff on the situation, the goal of a situation briefing is to decide whether to implement measures, trigger a contingency plan or to enter into a new action planning process.
  • The Swiss Armed Forces problem solving process follows five (plus two, 5+2) consecutive steps. It starts with (1) comprehending the problem, followed by (2) assessing the situation, deducting options for courses of action with a (3) decision and intension for one particular course of action, (4) developing a detailed and executable plan and finally (5) giving orders. In simple words, the process can be summarized as ‚understand – decide – communicate‘.
  • While planning an action, the steps of the problem solving process are handled in parallel by the commander and the staff. Specific briefings are held to synchronize the staff, share information and allow the commander to make decisions.
  • All relevant information to the management of the crisis is displayed on an ‚operations board‚. It shows the mission received, restrictions, the schedule, the status of own resources and a risk matrix, showing risks and threats. Visualization is key as well as keeping the content up-to-date at all times.
  • Practical media training. The lessons learned were to always have a positive key message prepared before going into the interview and to stick to the time table and hold up to your promises.

In a crisis situation, time will always be your enemy. Hence preparation is crucial and can be life-saving for your organisation. Implement the following three measures and you create the best possible condition to survive a crisis:

  • Build a crisis management organization before you need it. Cover and assign key roles such as Chief-of-Staff, Assistant-Chief-of-Staff, situation/intelligence, communication/media, operations and media cells. Make the necessary infrastructure available and make sure, it is available 24×7.
  • Prepare contingency plans for the highest impact risks and threats in your business. Those plans are based on a clear intent, an executable schedule and supporrting plans. Define and observe those triggers, e.g. KPI’s, already during the daily routine phase.
  • Practice your crisis management procedures on a regular basis, using realistic and challenging scenarios.

P.S. Congratulations to Staff Team #4. You were a great team, showing strong leadership, crisp and clear presentations and even with growing fatigue you have proven your will to perform and deliver. I wish you never get into a crisis situation. But if you do, I’m sure you’ll remember what you’ve learned during those 48 hours in the bunker: Immediately call in your crisis management staff and prepare for the situation briefing…


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