Plan optimism and other typical errors, in WIK 2013/03

Even the best prevention is not enough: companies get into crisis situations. Sometimes they are self-inflicted, sometimes they are triggered by external circumstances that can hardly be influenced. The hope that “things will go well” is often deceptive. And the fact that an ad hoc crisis management team, or even a crisis management team provided for in the organizational structure, reduces the damage does not necessarily apply, because mistakes are also made here.

Article by Klaus Bockslaff and Denis Standhardt

An example scenario could look like this: For LIFE AG the situation is coming to a head. The manufacturer of drilling machines has to fight with significant quality problems, there is already considerable damage. The supplier gives itself unaware, the subsidiaries abroad want to know what they should do. Everything were already critically enough, would not be there this airplane bomb rusting for decades, which was dug out during construction work in the proximity of the LIFE parent plant. Only a few hours, then the complete enterprise must be evacuated. The production will fail for days, and long the competitors began to chase LIFE the customers away.

In such a situation, the crisis manager’s chair quickly becomes an ejector seat. In this context, the only thing that is reassuring – and purposeful – is the following essential insight of effective crisis management: You cannot predict all causes, but you can predict their effects. To stay with the example: You do not know when construction work on your site will bring to light a dud that will paralyze your production. But you can get a good idea of what exactly will happen if your production comes to a standstill for a day, a week or a month. And you can also prepare for that.

This is why crisis management is not directed against events, but against the effects of events. In this case, crisis management is not limited to the planning and execution of evacuation, but is primarily aimed at overcoming the consequences of the evacuation for the company’s business. After all, damage limitation alone is no longer enough for companies today.

The goals of crisis management understood in this way are obvious: maintaining market share, providing services to secure customers, reducing losses due to process disturbances or failures, avoiding recourse claims, but of course also seizing the opportunities for image cultivation through professionalism in coping with crisis events.

But what exactly is this, a crisis event? And where is the line between daily business (with daily problems) and a crisis? For this purpose, it is helpful not only to define a catalog of events (“crisis” = “bomb”), but to focus on the solution instead of the problem. Crisis management is not based on specific events, but is understood as a special form of organization for every event that can no longer be handled by the normal organization in the company.

When planning such a special organization, however, too much emphasis is usually placed on risk analysis. At the end of such a very elaborate analysis, there is an extensive catalog of all conceivable crisis contingencies. Of course, this does not bring us any closer to a solution in the event of a crisis. At the same time, the focus on the actual work of the crisis team is often too weak. The crisis team is the central decision-making and management body in a highly dynamic situation. It is expected to make the best possible decisions for the future of the company under extreme pressure, with limited experience and under the shock of personal involvement.

This can only work if the team has a comprehensively defined decision-making process. A “leadership rhythm” that represents the central performance of the crisis management team in a cycle, from the evaluation of information, the development of options for action and decision-making to the exact formulation of orders and complete documentation.

What is missed in the planning process has a direct impact on the quality of staff work in a crisis – and thus on the success of crisis management. It should therefore be imperative to invest in crisis preparation at precisely this point: Provide the people who are to lead in a crisis with functioning processes! And not to forget: Modern app solutions can be particularly effective in helping you to adhere to the prepared processes in detail even in critical situations.

After the successful development and implementation of such a system, another important insight of experienced continuity and crisis managers is often marginalized in companies: The urgent need to test an existing system regularly in an exercise. Such exercises are by no means only there to check call lists for actuality. Such exercises are primarily there to observe the behavior of the members of the crisis teams and to improve their interaction. In an extraordinary, highly dynamic situation, this interaction does not work automatically. Not even if the described processes for crisis management exist.

Even at the beginning of crisis management, there is often a lack of a clear assignment of tasks in relation to the crisis team members / areas. Is the common goal of crisis management in the staff sufficiently defined?If not, planning and decisions are only made on a short-term basis instead of following a strategy. Only “fires are extinguished”, but there is no thinking ahead.

The consequence of this is “plan optimism”: It will go well because it must go well for lack of creative alternatives. In the end, the staff is either no longer capable of making decisions or only capable of extreme decisions, i.e. minimal consensus or sole decisions. The situation then regularly slips away – and the escalation of the crisis takes its course.

Team and management problems also regularly hinder the work of the crisis team. These problems often begin with the selection of personnel for the crisis team. What is needed here are above all “generalists” with experience, resilience and creativity. The crisis team should not be afraid of making vital decisions. If they do, endless discussions take the place of structured decision-making.

It is also well researched what symptoms and problems affect people who are under stress: Perception, concentration, retentiveness, determination, attention – all these abilities tend to decrease. Worries and doubts, on the other hand, tend to increase. Do not underestimate the influence of these stress consequences in the crisis team! Even for experienced managers they take some getting used to.

On the other hand, people tend to overestimate their own physical and mental capabilities. No breaks, work until exhaustion, lack of care: All these are additional stress factors that are avoidable. When they occur, crisis teams all too often lose control and then lose their temper.

But – isn’t it all human, so somehow also inevitable? Humanly yes, inevitably no. Because all of the influences mentioned can be experienced in training and learned to cope with them. In order to fully cope with the flood of information in a crisis, a sensible distribution of work and early delegation can be anchored in the team in the process. The extreme time pressure can be countered with a clear setting of priorities and far-reaching process routines.

After all, it is no coincidence that wherever irreversible decisions have to be made continuously under high pressure, similarly rigid processes and structures are applied! This is no different in a hospital operating theater than in a newspaper editorial office, in the military in action or in the cockpit of an airplane.

But all this (and much more) has to be developed not only in workshops and documented in manuals – the members of the crisis management team and their representatives have to master all this and practice it regularly together. Because in the end, crisis management success can only be achieved through (self-)trust and loyalty in the team.

Both must be created before the crisis. Otherwise – as in the LIFE AG scenario – in the crisis, first time, then the customer, and finally trust runs out. In contrast, process-oriented crisis management as a specialized organization is no art. It can be learned, but Thomas Edison’s proverbial formula for success applies: “1 percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration”.

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