HIGH TEMPO OPERATIONS - "Crisis"

So, when does high tempo become a crisis?

 

Unfortunately, there is no clear answer to this question. Academics are still debating what is meant by the term crisis. Therefore there is a need to provide greater clarity for practitioners. In my work I have focused on organisational crises and so I have worked for some time to, at least, make this clear. The answer is complex and, to me, depends on where you sit within the organisation. At the board/ executive level, I would define a crises as one that might kill the organisation or it might lead to the termination or one or more members of the board or the executive. For other members of the organisation events may lead to the termination of some member(s) of the staff but, if this does not threaten the organisation or senior management, it should not be seen as being an organisational crisis. (The logic for this statement, which does work in practice, is based on an understanding of the seven dimensions of risk.) Therefore, if an organisation has a problem that it has to work quickly to resolve, but it does not threat the existence of the organisation or the career of senior staff, it is not a crisis; it is a period of high tempo operations. What might confuse the issue is that the best way of managing high tempo events may be to treat as if it were a crisis. I would say that the principles of crisis management should still be applied to these situations.

This section will provide comment on what I think of a high tempo operations while other might characterise them as crisis. I examine these because they provide the complex dynamic situation in which I am interested.

 

The material that I provide on these pages is just a spin-off coming out of my other work.

In the subsection I describe:

  • Thinking about the context in which you organisation might have to move from routine operations, through high-tempo operations to that of crisis. This section lays out some ideas to help start the thinking process/

 

  • The three-headed hydra of crisis that needs to be coordinated.

 

Last updated: 06 Nov 21

Principles of Crisis Management

INTRODUCTION

 

These principles were developed jointly with PM.be during 2019-20. PM.be is a crisis management consultancy in Belgium.  The principles were developed based on our combined academic and practical knowledge of crisis management and were refined by practice over the course of the year.

We came to understand that crisis management is just the adoption of very good management practices. The reason these practices are not used all the time is that they are exhausting (and expensive). As managers we all take short-cuts to save time. We suffice, we trade thoroughness for efficiency and we generally "muddle through". Normally we can afford the occasionally slip, to make minors errors, or have the occasional lapse. We pick these up and correct them as we go: we have the time.  When operations becomes high tempo (or a crisis) we often do not have the time to be wrong. We therefore have to tighten up our game and make sure that we have the support to help us get it right first time. This requires the organisation to ramp up its structure and processes. Help to start thinking about these issues can be found here.

Here are our principles of crisis management.

  •  Remember to "fly the plane"

 

Despite the crisis, business has to continue where possible. Manager should avoid solely focusing on the crisis while overlooking the needs of "business as usual".

The phrase comes from an air-crash investigation where the pilots became so absorbed by a failed landing gear light bulb that they failed to notice that they were running out of fuel … yes, it ended badly.

  •  Avoid doing more harm

 

While the crisis will be caused by one source of harm (which will be tackled as a priority), some new actions may cause harm through unintended consequences. Be careful not just to replace one problem with another.

  •   Identify stakeholders and their real concerns

 

In our definition of crisis we talk of "events that someone cares about”. Find out who cares about what and address those issues.

  •  Know where you are going and how you will get there (fitness landscape)

 

Take time to define the end state desired. This needs to be defined to ensure everyone has a common end to which to work.

For example: These principle are all based on the delivering the outcome of "winning back trust in the organization".  Here we see issues such as "brand" and "reputation" being about how much trust the stakeholders have that the organization will deliver its output in an acceptable manner. The purpose of crisis management is to win back the trust lost through the crisis. 

 

  •   Resolve the problem at the appropriate level

 

The expertise required to resolve a crisis may not reside at the highest level of the organisation. Management needs to seek out the right expertise to deal with the problem at hand.

 

  •  Listen and align

 

This about ensuring that different parts of the organization are not working against each other. Again this often manifest in the unintended consequence of an action rather than the action itself. Here we are talking about the phenomenon of "emergence" within complex systems.

  •   Prioritize 

 

This is about ensuring that the organisations makes best use of time and other resources available to it.

 

  •   Avoid looking shifty (devious)

 

Spokespeople often try to word their statements to avoid blame: this can make them come across badly to the public. The consequence of this is the public lose trust in everything they say. The purpose of this principle is to mitigate this route to a further loss of trust.

 

  •   Be consistent as you can, balanced with flexibility

 

This principle is driven by two contrasting ideas. 

  • The first is that the world is constantly changing, and therefore we need to adapt to these changes ... we need to be “agile”.

  • The second is that it takes time to change direction. Even at the micro level (day to day operations) it takes time to decide on a course of action, disseminate the instruction and then to implement it. It is much easier and quicker for those in charge to change their mind on what needs to be done than it is to implement the action. When the decision cycle gets out of alignment with the “decision-action” cycle then this can (and often does) end up with “order-counterorder-disorder”… chaos.

 

The point of the principle is to remind decision-makers that any change of orders/ direction has to be given time to be implemented. Remember that the best option can be the enemy of a good option. Be consistent as you can (try not to chop and change the direction you are giving) but be ready to make changes, as quickly as possible, when absolutely necessary.

 

  •  Rest: tired minds make bad decisions

The "Boss" often "wish to be seen as being in charge" of the crisis management and they do this by being always present. The downside side of this is they become exhausted and the consequence of this is that they become more prone to making bad decisions.

 

High Tempo Operations - Coordination

Within the context section, one of the dimensions discussed is the divide between centralised and decentralised decision-making. This subject has been debated at great length within the academic literature covering risk, safety, disaster and crisis management. I do not intend to go over the issues here. Rather I will just state that, from my perspective, while centralised decision-making provides some benefits, it is less effective in crisis management. It is seen to stifle initiative and delay action unnecessarily. An assumption of this piece of work is that we want to devolve decision-making to those best placed.  Devolving decision-making authority does however bring its own problems. When this function is devolved, the issue becomes one of ensuring that separate actions do not work against each other. When preventing failure of foresight, this issue should be reviewed under the principle of  the "effect of action"; in this case it is possible unintended consequences that should concern us.

 

I have produced a mental schema in order to facilitate the discussion. Central to the schema is the three headed hydra that is crisis management. The three heads consist of [1] the political dimension, [2] the operational dimension and [3] the need to communicate with the public, which is labelled "crisis communication".

Web-CrisisCoord

 

There is limited debate about the necessity for each of these dimensions and the need for each to communicate with their own audience. My interest is to examine how the three heads might coordinate their effort to deliver a common end. Here we make the assumption that there is a commonly agreed purpose. This is not always the case. There are clear examples, for instance, where the political and operational objectives work against each other. These circumstances are outside the scope of this work.

 

So how might the three headed hydra coordinate its effort. The traditional structure is modelled on the military's command and control structure. From a historical and cultural perspective this structure makes a lot of sense. Firstly the military is seen to be familiar with crisis situations and so would be expected to have developed a way of managing these situations. Secondly, in the event of having cosmological episodes (that is ones where the world around you no longer makes sense), those effected often look for a messiah figure to put their world back in order. This leads to the demand for someone to take charge of events and to fix them. Two problems here, the first is that the military are finding new ways of working as they feel that their traditional methods are no longer appropriate. The second is the a suitable god-like figure rarely emerges!

 

Research in many fields has shown that a complex situation needs complex solutions (often termed requisite variety). Simple solutions, such as a clear command and control structure, rarely work. The US military are developing network-centric warfare; this is also referred to as net-centric warfare or network-centric operations. This seeks to translate an information advantage, enabled in part by information technology, into a competitive advantage through the robust computer network that keeps  geographically dispersed forces well-informed. It seeks to provide us with information and communication technologies to improve situation analysis, accurately control inventory and production, as well as interunit relations. This is thought to provide operational flexibility and agility more effectively. In many ways it is akin to the benefits purported to come from the use of "big data". The central tenets of network-centric warfare are:

 

  • A robustly networked force that has improved information sharing.

  • Information sharing and collaboration enhance the quality of information and shared situational awareness.

 

  • Shared situational awareness enables self-synchronisation.

 

  • This, in turn, should dramatically increase mission effectiveness.

 

The key thing here is the idea of self-synchronisation  or as it is also called "self-organising". This issue becomes how to induce self-organisation within any such structure. The method currently under investigation comes from work done on chaordic systems. This approach focuses on the definition of the purpose and "a few simple rules" (or principles as I prefer to refer to them)

 

One final issue on the schema arises from the field of communication theory that promotes the idea that communications constitutes organisations (or CCO). This is consistent with organisation theorists who see that organisation structures depend on how the individuals involved see the organisation. This relates to what is espoused versus what we enact. The argument is that no matter what the organisation espouses, the organisation is structured in the way those affected see it as being structured. I have experienced this when working with a very large blue chip company. The company had restructured so many times those I was working with did not know where in the structure they currently resided. They focused on their task and the personal network they required to deliver; the formal structure was irrelevant to them. CCO uses the traditional node and link model of communications theory. The debate is whether the structure, the communication means  or message constitutes the node or the node linkages in the model. My interest in this debate is whether effective communication is about structures receiving messages via communication means or whether messages are passed to structures via the communication means. To put this another way, in the context given, should our communications paradigm give priority to the message or the structure in order to be most effective. The question (part of STRAND 2 Part 1) is which approach is more elastic?

 

Last Updated 14 Nov 21