March 2017 / Insight

How To Ensure Effective Decision Making in a Crisis

Rob Preston

Commercial Director, Chelsea Group Security & Crisis Management Division

One of the attractions of professional sport, is the uncertainty of the outcome. When the result of a contest is known, suspense is removed. Watching Roger Federer play opponents in the early rounds of a tournament in his prime was rarely a ‘nail biter’. Events that have such inevitability lose excitement.

There is a risk, in such circumstances, that the dominant competitor becomes complacent. Preparing for the game on Sunday, Eddie Jones, the England rugby head coach, will certainly have tried to instil anxiety in his team to prevent underperformance. He, his coaching staff and senior players would have spent time considering their, and their opponents, strengths, weaknesses and subsequent tactics. Perhaps someone even uttered the baffling expression: ‘expect the unexpected!’ to keep them alert. Nevertheless, Conor O’Shea, the Italian head coach, managed to execute a plan that England had not considered during their preparations. Whatever your stance on the ‘rights or wrongs’ of that approach it did one thing for certain: it created a crisis that England had to overcome.

decision making in a crisis

The definition of crisis in the Oxford English dictionary is: a time of intense difficulty or danger – a time when a difficult or important decision must be made.

Demonstrably, this created a ‘difficult’ time for England. It was certainly a time when a difficult and important decision had to be made (how to change their style of play to cope with the situation) and, although no-one’s life was at risk, it posed a danger to the England team’s objective.

Situations like this exist every day in business. Business leaders observe and assess their business sector and change their own business plans and processes in order to succeed. However, they, like the England team on Sunday, will occasionally encounter a situation that has not been foreseen; natural disasters like windstorm and flood and man-made events such as civil unrest and acts of terrorism. That may pose a danger to their business targets. So what can businesses do to prepare themselves for a negative situation that cannot be predicted? How do organisations prepare for a crisis?

decision making in a crisis

At a conference in 2013, I listened to the CEO of the Dutch equivalent of the RNLI: the KNRM. He was responding to a question as to why their operating procedures manual is comparatively ‘thin’. His message was clear: ‘You can’t predict the details of every emergency that we will respond to, therefore, we can’t rehearse every eventuality and we don’t try to. What one can do is select the right people for the job and present them with ever-changing training scenarios so that they become used to making decisions under stress’ i.e. quality people and repetitive training. This same principle was used in my pre-Northern Ireland deployment training in the late 1980s; get the right people making difficult decisions under pressure again, and again, and again!

decision making in a crisis

This does not imply that planning is of no use. Sports teams, military forces and business need to have a clear idea of the collective goal and the individual contributions that people make to it. However, anyone who has trained for competition, delivered operational plans for conflict or produced budgets for trading in free markets will understand that such plans rarely survive for long. They are not wasted, but they continually adapt. The skill is people must decide how to adapt the plan and quickly.

There is a significant body of research into the neurological and physiological response to crisis and the ability to make decisions under pressure; too large for analysis and comment in this blog. However, training under such conditions can reduce the negative impacts of these responses and optimise the positive. In addition, training exercises for the selected crisis management team (CMT) can highlight personality traits that may be unhelpful for decision making under pressure; the CEO might not always be the best person to lead such response teams, for example.

decision making in a crisis

Importantly, training should be designed to focus on managing the consequences of a given event rather than the causes. The resultant behaviours and team work learned can then be applied to any situation rather than just the scenario selected for training. If rugby teams, for example, prepare by asking themselves ‘if we are not able to pass to the fly half as we have planned, what do we do?’, they do not need the foresight to imagine the tactic employed by their opposition but can respond to whatever tactic produces this result. This same approach is applied in a business scenario to optimise the actions of CMTs.

Of course, training of CMTs takes time and occupies resources (senior management) carrying a cost to the business. For many smaller to medium size enterprises (SMEs) this might not be possible. One strategy in such a situation is to outsource the crisis decision making to a third party, experienced in such events.