No one could have predicted the COVID-19, so we thought, apart from Bill Gates in his 2015 TED talk and many others including health officials and experts, politicians, authors and movie directors and apparently a psychic. However, most of us really didn’t see this coming, until after the first case of pneumonia of unknown cause was detected in Wuhan and reported to the WHO Country Office in China on 31 December 2019. At the beginning many countries and businesses seem to think that it’s a problem that will never reach them, and it was very much business as usual, up until the s*** really did hit the fan.
For those of us who could see it coming, that a major disruption is inevitable, the health concerns are real, and COVID-19 is not fake news, it can be incredibly agonising, exasperating and chilling to see the painfully slow and inadequate responses taken by the organisations we work for. Yet it really shouldn’t surprise us (unfortunately), as Pearson and Mitroff (1993) from their five year research involving more than 200 companies on crisis management pointed out that “With very few exceptions, crises leave a trail of early warning signals. Unfortunately, we have found that in many cases, organizations not only ignore such signals, but may actually exert considerable efforts to block them” (p.52).
Pearson and Mitroff (1993) proposed the Five Phases of Crisis Management (p.53) that perhaps we can use to reflect on how organisations are dealing with this ongoing crisis. The first phase is Signal Detection. The signals from COVID-19 were there. From official news and reports to unconfirmed stories and social media posts. The challenge in this phase is very much for organisations to filter the signals, as they are constantly facing loads of information, and to identify the ones that matter. Two things that Pearson and Mitroff (1993) found to be important for organisations that do well in this phase. First, organisations “constantly probe and scrutinize their operations and management structures for potential errors or problems before they are too big to correct.” and second, “They establish clear and open information channels and recognize the contributions of messengers of bad news.” (p.53)
Does your organisation probe and scrutinise your operations for potential errors? Do employees take responsibility to point out problems when they see them? Do your leaders listen and recognise the feedback from messengers of bad news?
The second phase is Preparation/Prevention. In this phase, the objective is to strive to prevent the crisis from taking place, and devise plans in preparing to manage the crisis if it does happen. Regarding COVID-19, after a while (some took a bit longer), most organisations finally get it. It is happening. Many start to scramble together crisis response teams, carefully tolling the line of calming nervous employees and customers, and warning them that things are going to change. Organisations that were prepared are distinctly ahead of those who don’t, just like how some countries were much better prepared to deal with this crisis than others. Besides the creation of crisis teams, and crisis training and simulations, businesses need to start examining their production line, supply management, technology, customer support, employee communication and management, and start developing alternatives according to different contingencies. I think this phase is the acid test of leadership and organisational flexibility. Pearson and Mitroff (1993) found that the organisational cultural system that reflects the emotional/belief system of senior executives’ mindsets is often crucial to the preparation phase. “Unfortunately, we have found all too often that the momentum of an organizational crisis management effort can be thwarted by a single senior executive who is unwilling to consider the potential vulnerability of his or her organization.” (p.55).
How well did your organisation do in this phase? Did they take the necessary or even over-the-top precautions to protect the health of employees and the welfare of customers? How much effort did they go into contingency planning?
The third phase – damage limitation/ containment, as the name suggests, is to limit the impact of the crisis. How well an organisation performs in this phase logically follows how much effort was put into phase two. “Effective management of this phase would detail plans for preventing a localized crisis from affecting other uncontaminated parts of the organization or its environment… those organizations which are better prepared for crises devote time and resources to assure that damage containment mechanisms and procedures are in place and effective.” (p.53). One of my favorite restaurants in Melbourne, the Pancake Parlour seems to have done well in this phase. They introduced a series of proactive changes early on to their operations, which included removing of communal use items such as menus, wiping down high traffic surfaces every 30 minutes, removing self-serve water stations and asking for patience from their customers in situations when they can’t match up to their expectations. When restaurants in Australia were shut down to only allowing takeaways, Pancake Parlour responded quickly by offering customers 50% off their takeaway menu and in a couple of days, rolled out their contactless ordering and drive-through collection service.
How well is your organisation doing in this phase? What steps were taken to limit the damage to the bottomline, or contain the spread of the virus amongst their workers?
The next phase is recovery, both short-term and long-term. In this case, I think short-term recovery is very much connected to phase three in terms of damage limitation. However, organisations need to start planning for long-term recovery. The truth is no one knows how or when the crisis will end. But recovery can start nevertheless. Start by looking at the minimal procedures and operations that you need to recover and conduct normal business. Explore alternative activities, tasks, and processes to serve your customers. Stay connected with employees that have been stood down, because you’ll need them when your business is picking up again. Harness the best ideas from your employees because they are the people on the ground, closest to your customers. Re-skill your existing staff. Take advantage of the many free courses now made available by universities across the world. Get ready to come back stronger.
How well is your organisation getting ready for recovery? How are the employees getting ready for new business opportunities or new ways of doing things?
The last phase of crisis management is Learning, which Pearson and Mitroff (1993) referred to “adequate reflection and critical examination of the lessons learned from experiencing a crisis” (p.54). The authors lamented that “Sadly, we have found that many organizations do not conduct this phase because of the false notion that an examination of past crises will “only reopen old wounds.” Yet, almost exactly the reverse has been found in those organizations that dedicate the time and resources to integrate lessons learned from their experiences back into their crisis management process.” (p.54). They found that the focus of well-prepared organisations were on examining both positive factors that enabled them to perform well, and negative factors that inhibited their performance, without assigning blame, and the authors call this “no fault learning.” This is the phase I am most concerned about. What has happened so far has happened. We cannot reasonably expect organisations to have done everything perfectly. Mistakes have been made, and will still continue to be made. But the key question is – will we truly learn from this?
Let me end with a sentence from the concluding remarks made by Pearson and Mitroff (1993) whom I have so heavily relied on in this post, that “The purpose of crisis management is not to produce a set of plans; it is to prepare an organization to think creatively about the unthinkable so that the best possible decisions will be made in time of crisis” (p.59).
Pearson, C. M., & Mitroff, I. I. (1993). From Crisis Prone to Crisis Prepared: A Framework for Crisis Management. The Executive, 7(1), 48–59.