Crisis Means “Decide” in Greek
Knowing how to resolve a crisis begins with the right mindset.
“When going through hell, keep going.” — Winston Churchill
No Such Thing as an Ordinary Crisis
Our word “crisis” comes from “krisis” and “krino,” ancient Greek words meaning “to decide” and “turning point.” So think of any crisis as a moment in which you decide to take a different direction. Most disasters suffer because we react too quickly and choose a different but wrong direction.
Jared Diamond, UCLA professor of geography and author of numerous best-sellers on the impact of culture and science, including Upheaval: Turning Points For Nations in Crisis, provides a useful example of a crisis narrative. Diamond believes the most troubling aspect is that we spend time on non-effective approaches.
On November 28, 1942, at 10:15 P.M., the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Boston engulfed hundreds of patrons unable to get through the exit. The fire escape was blocked, probably to ward off intruders — by 11. P.M., 492 people died of burns, but mostly suffocation or trampled beneath the feet of those trying to escape.
It happened on a Thanksgiving weekend. People were celebrating with friends after spending time with family, looking forward to watching the game. Even those who survived suffered psychological symptoms such as “survivor disorder” that occurs when loved ones such as relatives died while, at the same time, they managed to live — crating profound feelings of self-guilt. People’s lives were blown off course. “They feel ashamed that they were alive while a dear one was dead. The fire shook faith in a world of justice. A few committed suicide.”
Diamond suggests that when we are in the middle of a global crisis such as a pandemic, like the people in the Boston fire, we focus on running away, not seeking safety. Three tools or processes are critical for a successful crisis outcome:
- Crisis Plan
- Crisis Team
- Crisis Communications
Solving a crisis is no different than any problem that happens to feel overwhelming. No emergency is so great we can afford to skip “planning,” even if the plan is to form a line to get out the doors. We need to rely on proven methods in these circumstances, finding the problem, conditions, probability, and then iterate:
- Identify the problem (e.g., is it the flame or the fire)
- Prioritize conditions
- Implement the best probability
- Iterate continuously
When we simply ‘react’ and do not ‘plan’ in panics and pandemics, our survival instincts kick in, and we make the worst possible decisions. It is what incited the ’08 Financial Crisis, and the same impulse led to the Great Depression, as political leaders focused on the wrong problem.
In the Financial Crisis, the punishment of bankers mesmerized the U.S. Congress, brought about the collapse of Lehman Brothers, and precipitated the global recession. In the Great Depression, revenge against stock market speculators led to a reduction in the money supply and strict limits of the gold standard, the consequences of which doomed the world to eight years of devastation.
In every case, we all wish we had spent more time training for a crisis.
It suggests we also need to build the right team. Some companies choose team members involved in critical activities while others have a team already in place, depending on the business model.
The main thing to remember, a crisis team is not ad hoc. It requires a SWAT mentality that can deal with long periods of boredom punctuated by panic. The crisis task force should include mid to upper middle leaders in the organization (not senior management. The team should represent the following four characteristics:
— The team should include diverse age groups, backgrounds and cultures, and experts in essential functions.
— The organization must have confidence in their ability.
— They must have access to anyone throughout the organization at any time.
— Specialized training and compensation may be required.
The Crisis team should have the communication skills to investigate the problem, engage with external and internal groups to smooth relations between media and activists, governmental authorities, and the C Suite. They also give the CEO time to think through the problem and understand what is really at stake in the mind of the public. To restore credibility, they need to be able to intervene with external and internal groups and recommend changes to policies, as required. Finally, their job is to restore order to a chaotic situation, and do whatever is necessary to make that happen.