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Crisis Preparedness: In Hindsight, in Times of Volatility We Need Foresight

September 8, 2020

“It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future,” said baseball legend Yogi Berra. Yet, in a mega crisis like COVID-19, organizations have little choice but to crystal-ball what lies ahead with very few certainties.

That’s a lot to crystal-ball. A medical catastrophe at its core, in addition to health impacts COVID-19 is triggering multiple secondary disasters, from a shock to national economies, to layoffs and bankruptcies, to travel bans and loss of family connections to mental health issues. Each comes with its own set of unknowns, often on a scale bigger than anything organizations have ever experienced before. Unsurprisingly, this global mega crisis has exposed stress points in our structures of preparedness, which have generated commentary and reflection by the media and a range of experts.

The importance of crisis preparedness

Over the past two years, Canada reportedly cut the number of cities storing critical medical supplies by one third, according to the Globe and Mail. The country’s “once-vaunted” early warning system for pandemics had curtailed its surveillance work before coronavirus struck. In his article “The doomed 30-year battle to stop a pandemic,” Paul Wells wrote, “for decades, researchers and officials obsessed with planning to stop an outbreak. Then along came COVID-19 and we were sitting ducks.”

What went wrong?

In hindsight, many stress points are rooted in short-sightedness resulting in a too familiar “groundhog day” pattern of erasing earlier learnings and repeating the same mistakes, over and over again. A pattern that erodes public trust.

The term “emerging viruses” was coined three decades ago, and with infectious diseases striking in different parts of the globe, there have been many warnings. The SARS outbreak in Toronto brought it home for Canadians, showing we are not immune. Governments, scientists and doctors worked hard to understand, detect and cope with pandemics, developing global warning systems and crisis communications playbooks. Some organizations conducted hours- and even months-long simulations. Crisis patterns became so predictable that Steven Soderbergh’s movie “Contagion” looked surprisingly realistic when COVID-19 hit this spring. 

Somehow, all these warnings and learnings became lost opportunities to exercise foresight. Some pundits even claimed traditional crisis management playbooks are dead.

Looking ahead, what are the lessons from the multi-stage COVID-19 mega crisis that can help drive sustainable change in future preparedness?

Lessons on preparing for a crisis

LESSON # 1: Resist “groundhog” dynamics in crisis planning

Behind a “groundhog” pattern of erasing earlier learnings lies a recency bias that creeps into organizational decision-making. The question that defines many risk assessments: when was the last time this happened? If a scenario has not materialized recently – say, in the last 10 years – its probability is seen as low and there’s no business case to assign resources.

Here’s how the logic works: if I reserve a sum of money today for the unknown tomorrow, my profit is reduced by that amount now. With many pressing priorities vying for attention and funding (all the battles we need to fight right now!), the investment of resources in future uncertainties is hard to justify.

The problem with this logic in crisis planning is that it leaves us vulnerable to disasters. The “knock on wood” strategy ignores uncertain but potentially devastating scenarios. What if the next pandemic happens not in six or nine, but, say, 12 or 16 years? Will we remember what went wrong in 2020? This may well be one of the biggest risks in crisis management – a risk of complacency settling in when crisis memories fade.

LESSON # 2: Prioritize not only the most likely, but also the most damaging scenarios

Pandemics are rare events, but they can be devastating. If there’s no real commitment to dealing with them, a sluggish ramp-up of mitigation measures is almost guaranteed when disaster strikes. Stephen Morse, a Columbia University professor of epidemiology, was reportedly surprised by the little international coordination in the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak. Other experts pointed to insufficient testing and contact tracing, among other gaps in pandemic management.

So what’s the lesson here? The most damaging scenarios should not be relegated to appendices in the planning deck, unlikely as they may look right now. This only creates a false sense of security that something has been done about them. The scariest scenarios should be at the top of the crisis plan, along with the most likely ones – prioritized for full support.

This means:

Engaging a public relations agency partner with the right expertise to support decision-makers before, during and after a crisis to help the organization get it right when things go wrong.   

LESSON # 3: Build a look-ahead roadmap, not a codified rulebook

When a worst-case scenario does hit, an immediacy bias may kick in and reign for a while. Putting out today’s fires, decision-makers turn a blind eye to even bigger threats on the horizon. While what’s happening right now (the immediate stage of the crisis) pulls all attention, even more important is what may happen tomorrow (that “next” beyond today’s response). Negative events can amplify stress points or accelerate opportunities so a clear focus on the future is key.

The lesson here: prioritize foresight over hindsight by integrating crisis and strategic planning. What’s coming in two weeks, two months or two years? Organizations that scan and plan ahead across probabilities, scenarios and time horizons not only adapt better and faster, but also accelerate the decisions that shape innovation. We’ve seen a massive shift towards digital channels, for example, which companies with a longer-term orientation have already leveraged to create strategic advantage. McKinsey suggests a strategic crisis action plan methodology to accelerate responses through the new realities with a dynamic process to listen to the signals of change and act on them, generate viable strategic and tactical options and refine scenarios as events unfold.

LESSON # 4: Exercise resilience, not triage

The side of the crises not often talked about is their psychology. In a mega crisis, organizations experience collective trauma. If unchecked, it may get in the way of moving forward. Employees put in longer and longer hours to keep up and feel increasingly overwhelmed. They no longer problem-solve – they triage. This crisis bias drains the capacity to push ahead (instead of being pushed by external pressures) critical to surviving and thriving when the crisis passes.

Airlines ask passengers to put on their own oxygen mask first in an emergency. In a prolonged crisis, that metaphorical oxygen is vitality needed to think creatively, uncover non-linear possibilities, tap into positive emotions and find meaning through the cycles of stress. How can I solve this problem differently? What can I learn from this experience? How can I grow from it, regardless of what’s happening? Looking for positive answers without minimizing the negatives or denying the facts makes organizations resilient when each employee puts on that “oxygen mask.”

Charles Darwin said, “It is not the strongest or most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change,” and this applies to crisis management, too. Crisis playbooks are not dead. But, to guide effective judgement calls in the unchartered waters of volatility, they can’t be rigid, over-codified and under-resourced. In hindsight though, preparedness is a lot more than a playbook. It is the capacity to tackle whatever curveballs life throws our way.

Proof Strategies offers modern reputation management solutions to guide organizations in a crisis, accelerate decisions during the times of volatility, and build and sustain trust.