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Aligning incident management and strategic crisis management

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By Andrew Sheves, director, Regester Larkin Americas

Managing an incident and managing a crisis are two very different challenges that require different capabilities. Incident management addresses an immediate, often physical, safety or security risk with the goal of protecting people, the environment and assets. Crisis management addresses reputational, financial, commercial and strategic risks which may result from an incident growing in scale, severity or impact but could equally result from an escalated issue. The two disciplines are often confused which means that, when both an incident management and a strategic crisis management response are required, there is a lack of clarity and alignment.

In this article, Regester Larkin Americas’ Andrew Sheves looks at this alignment challenge and suggests some practical ways in which it can be addressed to ensure a joined up response to an incident-driven crisis.

The different roles of an IMT and a CMT
The terms crisis management and incident management are still, by some, used interchangeably. However, they describe very different things. Whilst many incidents lead to crises, many don’t. Equally, while many crises are caused by incidents, many are not. Some of the biggest corporate crises have been caused by issues, not incidents: News International and the phone hacking scandal, GSK and corruption allegations in China, Shell and the reserves scandal. These situations were clearly crises – and were labelled as such by the media – despite the fact that they did not involve burning oil platforms, train wrecks or air accidents. What identifies a crisis is not the nature of what has happened but what is at stake – reputation, the bottom line, the company’s license to operate – and the immediacy of the threat.

When the cause of a crisis is an incident, at least two teams should be set up, each performing very different roles. Imagine an explosion and fire at a company’s manufacturing facility. Some people have lost their lives, some are seriously injured and others are unaccounted for. The fire is still burning and there is a chemical leak into a local waterway. This is certainly an incident but given the scale of this situation, it is likely to be declared a crisis too: not because of the detail of what has happened, but because of the recognised potential impacts on the company.

The role of the incident management team (IMT) in a situation like this is to save lives, prevent damage to the environment and protect assets. This operational team will – or certainly should – have detailed plans for managing such incidents which will likely involve external organisations such as the emergency services.

If and when assembled, the crisis management team (CMT) has two primary roles. Firstly, it must make sure that the operational response proceeds as expected, and support it appropriately by providing strategic direction and extraordinary resources. To achieve this, the CMT should demand that the operational response reports to it regularly and closely oversees the communications and HR response. But beyond this, the CMT should avoid becoming involved in the operational response. Therefore, it should soon start to focus on the second aspect: thinking about perceptions, impacts, recovery and survival. Put simply, the job of the CMT, through high-level decision-making, analysis and strategy development, is to protect those things recognised as being of utmost value: the trust of stakeholders and the reputation that they collectively assign to the organisation. As Andrew Griffin writes in ‘Crisis, Issues and Reputation Management’, “BP’s crisis in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 was not, harsh as it may seem, a crisis about the deaths of 11 people working on the Deepwater Horizon rig. It was a crisis about BP’s competence, performance, safety record and trustworthiness”.

Role confusion
The IMT should be looking ‘in’ and ‘down’, whilst the CMT should be looking ‘up’ and ‘out’. One focuses primarily on the short term, one on the longer term. One needs to imagine future scenarios, the other needs to stay grounded in the here and now. But whilst these two disciplines are very distinct, some organisations find it difficult to keep them separate. This may be because the organisation has developed a relatively new crisis capability as an extension of an already established incident management and business continuity capability, but in doing so failed to demerge the strategic from the operational. This brings duplication and confusion where there needs to be distinction.

But even when separation on paper has been achieved in the incident management and crisis management procedures, keeping that separation in practice, especially in the heat of a major incident-driven crisis, is not at all easy. A typical problem in crisis response is the CMT getting caught in the operational ‘weeds’; the CEO becoming the Chief Engineering Officer rather than the strategically-focused leader the crisis response actually requires. The cause of this problem is often the CMT’s confusion concerning its own role. If the CMT is negligent of its strategic focus it will revert to type and try to solve problems on the ground. Such ‘over-management’ of the operational team serves only to stifle, rather than help the response.

How, then, can an organisation enforce this separation between the operational and the strategic teams whilst at the same time encourage alignment between the two?

Clarity of roles, responsibilities and structure – before and during the crisis
The first solution is the most obvious: ensure that the crisis management procedures clearly reflect the difference between crisis and incident response. Set out the role of the CMT and the IMT in clear, simple terms and encourage structured engagements, through the use of tools and templates, between the operational and strategic teams allowing both to ‘stay in their lane’.

Secondly, use process, training and exercises to establish clear escalation criteria for defining when a crisis response is triggered.

And thirdly, when a crisis is called the CMT should, in the first instance, take time to remind itself of its purpose by defining the crisis and setting out objectives for its resolution. To define the scope of each team’s response is an invaluable 15 minute exercise which can serve as a reminder of the separateness that the CMT should feel from the IMT.

Information flow and situational awareness
Developing, and maintaining, a shared understanding of the situation can help the CMT and IMT coordinate effectively and ensure that both teams have access to the most up-to-date and accurate information required to enable a strategic response and, more specifically, make critical decisions.

Due to the often ill-structured and rapidly changing nature of a crisis, achieving good situational awareness is no mean feat. Creating a fully contextualised view of a situation can mean the collection and collation of information from various sources, with supporting assessment, evaluation, integration and dissemination across a number of teams in a number of different locations.

To avoid the CMT being overloaded with information, there is a need to consolidate, assess, refine and package information into a usable format rather than passing on each and every piece of information.

However, whilst too much information will stifle the CMT’s response, too little will provide only a partial picture. A lack of good quality, relevant information will cause the CMT to look for facts from other sources, often filling in gaps with undocumented assumptions and guesswork. In order to ensure a successful response, the operational team must understand exactly what information the CMT needs to know to do its job. Developing a system to manage information efficiently will ensure that the appropriate people can access the information they need to respond effectively.

The coordinator’s role in achieving alignment
A key role in any crisis response is the crisis coordinator. The crisis coordinator should be a senior member of staff and not a decision-maker within the CMT; owning the process but not the crisis. The crisis coordinator’s role is to ensure that the CMT is operating effectively by rectifying poor coordination, ensuring separation between the teams and encouraging the practice of good situational awareness. The crisis coordinator should be monitoring that the processes for planning, briefings and reporting are followed and that the CMT is providing suitable strategic direction to, but not overshadowing, the operational response. They will oversee the generation and distribution of reports and updates, ensuring that these are succinct, focused and limited to what the CMT needs to know in order to support critical-decision making. Therefore, enabling strategic response while preventing the CMT from drowning in excessive information.

An effective crisis coordinator can be the lynchpin for ensuring the operational and strategic elements of the response are aligned without overlapping. He or she can be assisted in this task in two additional ways.

Firstly, the crisis coordinator should have a small, dedicated staff to help manage their workload.

And secondly, a defined and rehearsed process accompanied by supportive tools should be developed pre-crisis to maintain the delivery of good situational awareness. Information will flow into this system from a number of sources and all elements of the response will draw on this database for information. All of these enhancements should be codified within the organisation’s crisis management plans to ensure that processes are robust and the mandates of each team remain clear.

Practice makes better
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the best way to instil understanding and cooperation between the IMT and the CMT while ensuring alignment is to practise bringing the structures and processes to life through training and, in particular, simulation exercises. These exercises provide the operational and strategic teams with an idea of the complexities of handling information and making decisions during a crisis whilst allowing team members to build an experience based understanding of their role. Practice never makes perfect in a crisis and every post-crisis review throws up new lessons and opportunities for improvement. But practice most certainly makes better.


This article was also published in Security Management, a publication of ASIS International. Read article.


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