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Mission command: how to empower employees to act fast in a crisis

The ability of an organization to respond almost instantaneously to a crisis or potential crisis affects whether the event is manageable or escalates into something more serious. In this article Rob McAllister investigates how a philosophy of mission command can help organizations create a crisis management system that is fit for the digital era where swift decision-making by effectively empowered people is vital.

What is mission command?

Mission command is a philosophy used by the British Army. In its military context it is a decentralised style of command that relies on initiative, the acceptance of responsibility and mutual trust (1) This approach empowers employees to use initiative and promotes freedom and speed of action through the establishment of clear intent and constraints (e.g resources) by senior manager(s) or commanders.

Mission command has one guiding principle – the absolute responsibility to act and achieve the superior’s intent. It also has five further principles:

Unity of effort: Unity of effort stems from the setting of a clear intent, the use of common language, terminology and tactics, a high standard of collective training and the designation of priorities and a main effort (for the mission or task).

Freedom of action: Employees must be able to exercise freedom of action within specified and implied constraints to act as they see fit to ensure the achievement of the superior’s intent without fear of repercussion.

Trust: Trust is a prerequisite at all levels. Trust improves speed of decision making and therefore improves the tempo of the operation. Trust must be earned not demanded, however the default must be for all levels of the organization to trust both their superiors and subordinates. In particular superiors must trust their employees to sensibly interpret their intent and persevere to achieve it.

Mutual understanding: Mutual understanding is developed over time through common doctrine and concepts.

Timely and effective decision making: Successful command requires timely and effective decision making at all levels. Despite the increasing availability and speed of information it remains essential for commanders to make decisions on the basis of incomplete and imperfect understanding. This can seem risky, and good judgement is required to decide when is the right time to act or not to act.

How can a mission command philosophy improve an organization’s crisis management capability?

There is a theory in crisis management called ‘the golden hour’ which states that your response within the first hour of the crisis affects whether the event is manageable or escalates into something more serious. The concept was born in emergency medicine, where if the patient receives the correct medical treatment within one hour the chance of their survival is greatly increased. However, in the modern era of digitally connected, social media savvy audiences the reality is that the golden hour has been compressed into the golden few minutes, during which an organization’s initial response to a potential crisis affects whether the event is manageable or escalates into something more serious. Organizations which are serious about their crisis preparedness have recognised this and are now searching for a means to enable this rapid, almost instantaneous strategic crisis response to happen. The application of a mission command philosophy in an organization’s crisis management system can help it achieve just that.

Most crises are dynamic, rapidly evolving and unpredictable and have extraordinary strategic implications. A mission command system allows employees to rapidly respond to a changing situation and seize opportunities by using their initiative, experience and ability to ensure that the senior crisis manager’s intent and the organization’s response priorities are met. It also facilitates a rapid initial response to a crisis, prior to the activation through traditional means of the crisis management team(s) across the organization.

How can the key principles of mission command be applied to an organization’s crisis management system?

When an organization is experiencing a crisis its crisis management system needs to facilitate the creation of unity of effort within the response. It should establish the intent of senior management, this can be demonstrated through the documentation of:

  • Response priorities – It is common for organizations to use 1. People, 2. Environment, 3. Assets, 4. Reputation as their response priorities this is often referred to as PEAR.
  • Response philosophy – In its simplest form, a philosophy of prudent over reaction to a crisis or potential crisis empowers employees to act swiftly and decisively.
  • Management principles – these provide a guideline of how the organization will develop and deliver its response.
  • Definition of a crisis – A clear and concise definition of what constitutes a crisis

If employees have this guiding methodology which explains the senior management’s intent it empowers them to act, which supports freedom of action.

The successful implementation of a crisis response requires investment from senior managers in a sustained competency development programme. Developing employee competency in crisis response is essential, it develops confidence in the organization’s response system and their own capability to manage a crisis. A trained crisis management team has a far better chance of successfully managing a crisis than an untrained one, it will respond faster and work more efficiently as the response progresses. This in turn develops unity of effort across the response system and establishes a template for mutual understanding and trust to be developed across the organization. Exercises also provide the basis for development of the crisis management system through a process of continuous improvement. Trust is gained in the crisis management system if responders know that their feedback, and any learnings identified in post exercise reports, are reviewed and any improvements are implemented.

Successful crisis response requires timely and effective decision making. By creating a crisis management system that adheres to a mission command philosophy, organizations can greatly improve the speed at which they respond to a crisis. This is achieved through unity of effort in the crisis response, mutual understanding and trust held by all members of the response structure, trust in the crisis management process and policy, and the freedom of action for employees to act using their best judgement and expertise within defined constraints, in line with the intent of senior management.

Summary

For this insight piece, the latest international best practice in crisis and incident management has been used as a benchmark to review how the philosophies of mission command relate to, and can help organizations become better prepared to deal, with a crisis in the modern digital era. It is clear that although mission command’s terminology is different, it is complimentary to the preparedness guidance presented in best practice. By using the guiding principle of mission command which is the absolute responsibility to act and achieve the superior’s intent, and the five key principles; unity of effort, freedom of action, trust, mutual understanding and timely and effective decision-making, an organization can create a crisis management system that aligns with international best practice and allows it to respond quickly and effectively through the empowerment of employees to make swift decisions, which have the potential to minimise the impact of the crisis during the critical first few minutes. This increases organizational resilience.

The author

Robert McAllister is Senior Consultant, Instinctif Partners. Contact: robert.mcallister@instinctif.com

Find out how your crisis management system aligns with international best practice – give CrisisOptic, powered by Instinctif Partners, a go today and get your free business resilience score. Access it at https://optic.instinctif.com

References

  1. Major Jim Storr, British Army, Defence Studies Journal, Vol.3, No.3 (Autumn 2003)
  2. Army Doctrine Publication – Land Operations


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