The BS11200 definition of crisis is: “an inherently abnormal and unstable situation that provides a threat to an organization’s strategic objectives, reputation or viability”
The critical words being the threat to strategic objectives i.e. it impacts on business strategy and viability. An example of a crisis impacting strategy for a company, government and industry are the losses of MH370 and MH17. These 2 incidents turned into crisis for many parties but they were quite different in character. The events illustrate different ‘issues’ that a management team (and a government) will face in a crisis. The improbability of losing 2 aircraft from the same airline in such diverse situations shows the unpredictable nature of crises – what are the odds?
Perhaps they are not as high as we think – recently I stumbled upon a parallel whilst on holiday in Chamonix in France. Indian Airlines lost 2 aircraft to the same block of mountains. A Lockheed Constellation with 48 souls aboard crashed in 1950 and in 1966 a Boeing 707 with 117 souls (see photos). These incidents tragically showing the increasing number of souls lost and I cannot help thinking about an A380 with over 500 passengers aboard (in European layout and up to and over 800 passengers in other configurations).
Back to the present, the strategic review conducted by the Malaysian Government was always going to happen as any government is forced to act as questions and scrutiny increases. Leadership must be seen to be ‘doing something’. It will of course be interesting to see what happens to a state controlled airline and if ‘any’ distance is put between the government and the future operating model. Both MH370 and MH17 were also industry crises but for different reasons (e.g satellite tracking and airspace management).
The ultimate price of getting crisis management wrong is of course the change of the management or government (e.g. the Spanish government falling after the Madrid bombs (a good explanation of events driving social change – or not! is in ‘Governing after Crisis’ by Boin, McConnell and t’Hart).
In asking the question what is different in the 2 cases of MH370 and MH17? The main difference is the level of uncertainty, the higher the uncertainty the more difficult in almost all respects. While there is lot written about types of crisis, there is little written about the range of difficulty. The level of difficulty is often driven by the key factors of the unknown or uncertainty – I call this ‘residual uncertainty’ (Ru). This Ru value is a useful concept to use as one form of evaluation of exercise difficulty to vary the challenge presented to a team.
MH17 has a low Ru factor (we think it was hit by a missile?) and the event has happened, impact is apparent, location known and apparent cause is known reasonably quickly. At the other end of the spectrum with the highest Ru score is MH370 (where many months on we still do not know). Look up MH370 on Amazon books and be amazed by the number of books – reflecting the theories, conspiracy and weight of views.
Ru is also a useful tool in scenario planning, for example there is relatively low Ru about the rate at which Ebola spreads per case (epidemiologists call this the “R0 that is R nought” the ‘reproduction ratio – there is debate as to its utility!) compared to a wide range of mortality which has high Ru (anywhere between 50% and 90%). There is good definition in Wikipedia of R0 – see link [R0]. While this concept is an inexact tool, it can add value to planning, if its own Ru is understood.
If the concept of Ru is used in designing exercises the variables around the selected risk theme can be mapped. The most obvious interventions that could be possible can also be identified by the exercise designer – this is setting out the ‘terrain’ for the exercise and it should be possible to see what a leadership team might do.
The value of mapping the Ru and factors from case studies is also clear as it enables the knowledge to be used to set ‘appropriate’ challenge for training and exercises. It also enables the strands of a scenario to be mapped and if a team is doing well then the areas have been identified where additional context, information or input will significantly change the whole situation, i.e. the Ru value can be increased or decreased to aid the learning opportunity.
Providing crisis leadership and management during high Ru events is the most challenging situation that could face management, therefore, we need to develop strategies and tools to enable crisis leaders to deal with and be able to cope with high Ru. It could be argued that Ru caused by lack of information is the main difference between normal management decision making and that required in a crisis.
– When developing crisis management capability there will be a range of known situations that have been faced by other management teams in an industry and more generically these should be mapped in initial planning to provide a basis for obvious planning (e.g. you would expect an airline to have emergency response plans for an aircraft crash). However, we should be planning for high Ru situations
– Executive management should expect high Ru in the initial stages of a crisis – tools are required to deal with this – such as case planning and planning assumptions
– Exercises should be simulate a realistic starting state mimicking the Ru that is often present. The variables can be mapped to provide the ’expansion’ or provision of extra challenge to the leaders or team as their level of proficiency and exercise experience increases
– If you are involved in pandemic or Ebola planning then understanding the basic reproduction rate (R0) is an important planning factor, and understanding the range, ironically its Ru!
– Watch current incidents and crisis and try to identify the Ru – once you think about this concept you can see events unfold and you can see how this shapes the response and possible interventions