In-crisis decision making: practice makes perfect

Get free weekly news by e-mailDennis C. Hamilton continues his series on crisis management, looking at how to conduct effective exercises.

Although the ‘In-crisis decision making’ information series formally concluded with the previous article, ‘Majority rules decision making’, we have decided to continue the series as a means of responding to the overwhelming number of questions and information requests received.

In this and subsequent articles We will be providing some thoughts and suggestions on a variety of related topics; the first of which addresses one of the most frequently asked questions; how do you exercise or train for in-crisis decision making?

Like so many things in life, in order to become proficient in any physical or mental process, it is necessary to practice. Some say there is no better learning curve in crisis management than managing through an actual crisis. To some extent I believe this to be true. However, what you actually apply during a crisis is your capabilities that exist at that time, including: inefficiencies in how your organization responds to a crisis; how it is managed; and how decisions are made.

Decision making is enhanced when you listen and learn; then incorporate what you already know, blend it altogether and, ‘poof!’, a decision will emerge. The risk of failure increases when you only consider what you know as an individual. As such, what you really must ‘exercise’ is the TEAM’S ability to make decisions.

Before we get into some details, a couple of definitions may be of value:

Decision making can be regarded as an outcome of mental processes leading to the selection of a course of action among several alternatives. Specialists apply their knowledge in a given area to making informed decisions. For example, medical decision making often involves making a diagnosis and selecting an appropriate treatment (the decision).

Exercise, in our context, is the application of thought processes to apply knowledge and information in order to enhance or maintain a team’s decision making capability. It is an activity that requires mental exertion when performed, challenging the knowledge and capabilities of those involved.

Exercising is using knowledge and skills you already possess, you simply want to use them in situations where you are expected or required to apply them.

We will now focus on how a crisis response team prepares itself for in-crisis decision making through training and exercises:

Exercising a team’s decision making capability is an essential component of what should be your organization’s crisis management ‘continuing education & training program’. My crisis management methodology for a continuing education & training program is comprised of four major elements that need to be briefly discussed in order to put training of the crisis response team into perspective. These are:

Program standards & skills reinforcement exercises

The objective of standards & skills reinforcement exercises are to reinforce crisis management policies, standards, disciplines and in-crisis processes through exercises that force the participation and the application of the knowledge and skills of all team members equally. All primary members and designated backups of the crisis response team need to participate.

Alternatively styled exercise sessions:

- Multiple short (20 minutes to one hour each) situational exercises are designed to trigger an emotionally charged condition within the exercise. This would test / exercise the inter-play and interdependence of team members while under pressure and while attempting to make significant consensus based decisions within minutes of being engaged.

- Scenario exercises (one to three hours each) are designed around highly possible or probable events. Creating a plausible situation where stress, anxiety, rumours and speculation would realistically occur, forces the team to assess changing conditions, make in-crisis decisions, obtain executive concurrence, apply in-crisis operating standards and manage disagreements and opposing fundamental beliefs.

Crisis simulation exercises

Defined as an interactive, full participation, role playing exercise whereby the crisis response team is provided with a crisis scenario incorporating significant variations (changes to the scenario) for the purpose of coaching individual and team responses; particularly focused on situational assessment and in-crisis decision making. A crisis simulation exercise requires participation from all team members for 1 to 1.5 days and, in order to create a more realistic state of crisis, aspects of the exercise could take place over a one to two week period.

The primary objective of a crisis simulation exercise is to establish and maintain a realistic state of crisis to fully assess all key aspects of control, decision making and emergency response in an event-driven scenario.

Participation on the part of the executive management, business leaders, other internal stakeholders, as well as external agencies and organizations all contribute to the CRT learning process by creating a realistic environment in which to perform.

Pre-event response planning

Pre-event response planning is defined as a process of response identification in advance of known or expected events that directly or indirectly endanger people, image or operations of the organization. While similar to an exercise in terms of how it is performed, the resulting plan becomes an operational deliverable of preparedness.

The primary objective of the workshop is to identify tasks or activities that should or could be carried-out by various operations or functions within the organization based on a time-line of probable and evolving events and circumstances. While the primary objective of pre-event response planning is to exercise the analytical capabilities of the crisis response team it also provides the ideal arena to identify precautionary and preventative measures that can be taken now to prevent or mitigate the impact of the selected event.

Educational programs / knowledge transfer forums

The objective of this type of information forum is to share information that will enhance the organization's overall crisis management capability. All primary members and designated backups of the crisis management team should attend.

Crisis response team members can directly contribute by providing an operational overview of how their department functions during various emergencies or can arrange for presentations or workshops with external organizations that provide vital services (i.e. stress counselling). Emergency management related external agencies could provide a working understanding of role, interaction and expectations on the part of the respective agency and the organization.

Failed outcomes of crisis management exercises

Exercises, particularly major ones, unfortunately often fall far short of meeting an organization’s aims for a number of reasons, including:

• Lack of participation on the part of team members (as this is such a common problem that it will be the focus of the next segment of this series).

• Too little ‘action’ to maintain interest and focus on the part of participants.

• Too simple to challenge the team’s skills and knowledge levels.

• Too complex or disjointed events creating a no-win scenario for the team.

• Not enough ‘fun’ to generate enthusiastic participation.

• The exercise is based on a scenario most believe to be improbable or unrealistic.

• Exercises developed by individuals who are not experienced or qualified to do so.

The building of a crisis management exercise must not only deal with the above challenges head-on, development criteria must also include:

• Creating conflict situations to force opinion and consensus.

• Forcing inter-dependent decisions to be made to show consequence of their actions.

• Reinforcing crisis management principles, policies, standards and the in-crisis process.

• Coercing the knowledge participation of every discipline (team member).

• Creating an environment for participation of designated backups.

• Gaining exposure within the executive (crisis management team) and senior management hierarchy.

• Including the crisis management team in the assessment and consideration of actions taken by the crisis response team.

• Presenting scenarios that require multiple disciplines to cooperate to achieve success.

Critical success factors

The adoption of most, if not all of the following critical success factors will greatly enhance the quality of the exercise, the active participation of team members and deliver on the expected benefits to the organization for the efforts applied.

• By far the most important critical success factor is to make the exercise ‘fun’ for the participants. That doesn’t mean it can’t be tough, stressful or full of challenges; it only means that if you want continued support and participation, they had better enjoy the experience.

• Put in the effort required – building and facilitating an exercise is a significant undertaking; recognize that for a crisis simulation exercise every hour of the actual exercise will require 10 to 18 hours of development time depending on the experience of the developer and facilitator.

• Don’t build an exercise to fail! I have no idea why some promote that failing is a positive learning technique; it only creates anxiety, disappointment and will negatively impact their desire to participate. Let’s never forget that for most organizations, participation on their crisis response team is not in their job description, they are in effect ‘volunteers’. Nonetheless, as the size of an exercise increases so must the complexity and challenges, and with that the probability of success diminishes. For crisis management, we are not teaching them how to do their job; they already know that.

• Team dynamics and interaction will probably point out at least one member of your team who wants to push their individual agenda and views on others by stating or implying they are an expert or by being loud or even rude. These ‘bullies’ try to get their way most often by putting down other’s opinions versus gaining support for their own opinions. The crisis response team is critical to your organization’s effective response to a crisis. As such, you should not have room for bullies; it is acceptable and recommended that you replace them.

• Do what you can to make all members of your crisis response team feel they are important to the organization; including the little things around conducting an exercise.

- Provide a large meeting room with lots of work space versus the confinement of most crisis command centres.

- Inform executive management and senior managers of the members of the crisis response team that vital exercises are being conducted to ensure the organization will be successful in response to a crisis situation. Send your announcement a few times before the event takes place. Spontaneous participation by management personnel may be the outcome.

- For every major exercise have a senior executive thank the crisis response team for their dedication and efforts; a pat on the back goes a long way with all of us.

- Provide coffee, snacks, lunch; whatever you can do as a minor thank you for their time and effort.

- If possible, conduct a major exercise external to the office. Not only could it generate a higher than normal participation rate, it can go a long way to creating a realistic scenario of events impacting your facility.

• Bottom-line on participation – if you don’t have 90+ percent confirmed for participation in an exercise, cancel or reschedule it and, on behalf of the team, reprimand those who forced you to reschedule. If you don’t have full or close to full participation it is not possible to draw the key conclusions necessary; too many vital skill sets and knowledge sources would be missing. Don’t forget to publicize to executive management the reason for canceling the exercise and those responsible for the cancelation.

• While I am certain that most organizations recognize how imperative it is to have at least one designated backup for every primary member of the crisis response team, it is equally imperative to have the designated backups participate ‘equally’ in all components of your crisis management continuing education and training program.

• Turn off the cell phones. If someone on the team needs to be reached for any reason, you can be certain that a way will be found.

• Do not allow the use of laptop computers during any exercise unless they are being used to support the team’s efforts. As difficult as it may seem for some people, you really can survive without seeing your emails for a few hours. If you are conducting a full day exercise, you will unfortunately need to provide a break in the proceedings for people to check their emails.

• Your exercise developer and facilitator cannot be a member of the crisis response team; otherwise your ‘team’ will be missing a key resource during the actual exercise. To achieve any level of success, your exercise developer and facilitator must be well experienced in the development and facilitation of crisis management exercises.

• Never build an exercise that has a catastrophic impact on your organization, such as a massive loss of life. It is virtually impossible to realistically create a scenario that could be effectively managed by the crisis response team and concluded within the prescribed time frame.

• For major exercises role-playing participants (non CRT members); both internal and external, are crucial to the level of success you will achieve, but be very selective! Ensure these role-players have the personality to be convincing, willing to follow an exact script and above all else, they do not contribute information that was not pre-established and that they do provide all of the information they were scripted to present.

• Keep the exercise rolling; lulls or delays in the exercise for whatever reason are deadly. Schedule role-players, provision of new information (calls, memos), impact changes of the event, providing results from previous decisions, etc. on a constant basis (every few minutes); particularly in the first hour of a major exercise; after which the frequency can be variable based on the desired progression and outcome.

• Keep exercises realistic in terms of what most believe will happen and the probable impact of any event. Your probability of success will be determined in the first 10 minutes of an exercise. If the team is not engaged because they do not believe the scenario to be realistic your exercise objectives will not be achieved. Select threats or events that are either highly probable, have been stated by executive management as being a concern and / or is one of the ten threats or events that are of greatest concern to the crisis response team (in terms of their ability to manage the situation).

• Walk before you run – a full crisis simulation exercise is well worth the effort, but it’s not a great place to start. Phase in your training by providing program and skills reinforcement exercises or conducting a pre-event response planning workshop. Your objective in training through exercises must always be success!

My company, CRPC, has developed and facilitated crisis management training programs for organizations throughout the world and consistently achieved success when the suggestions and critical success factors presented were applied. Yes, it’s difficult and takes considerable effort, but being able to provide assurances to your executives and other stakeholders that you are fully capable of responding to and managing any crisis is the reward.

Author:  Dennis C. Hamilton, Hon FBCI, is the president of Crisis Response Planning Corporation, an internationally recognized emergency management consulting services company. For over 20 years Dennis has been dedicated to the discipline of crisis management, earning the recognition and reputation as one of North America’s foremost practitioners and advisors to businesses in all primary industries. Dennis can be reached at 416-500-5517 or

CRPC Copyright 2010

Read the previous articles in this series:

1) In-crisis decision making: resolving the dilemma

2) In-crisis decision making: the authority to act

3) In-crisis decision making: Communicate or expect the worse

4) In-crisis decision making: ‘let them do their job’

5) In-crisis decision making: majority rules decision making


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•Date: 7th May 2010 • Region: US/World •Type: Article •Topic: Crisis management
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