You may also want to define some parameters. In our experience, these are often obvious but sometimes benefit from being spelt out in writing at the start of a response, e.g.:
• We will operate legally throughout.
• We will act in line with our organisation’s purpose and values.
If it wasn’t done during the ‘Situation’ stage, then the team should at this point consider two important matters:
a. Worst-case scenarios, so that the team can have the best chance of avoiding them, e.g., “It would be disastrous if the oil slick were to reach the coast”. You will decide how to avoid this scenario later in the process.
b. Stakeholders or, to use the ISO’s terminology, ‘interested parties’, i.e., identify those who are affected by the situation, or who might have an impact upon it. This can help you later as you consider options (and particularly in developing your communications plan, because interested parties are often communication audiences).
Once you have a clear and agreed Direction, you are ready to move to the next step of generating Options.
A vital part of crisis leadership is to manage time. In terms of generating options, there is a tension between the need to produce options and make decisions quickly, but not to quash original and creative thinking. There are many ‘ideation techniques’, but probably the most well known and most successful is ‘brainstorming8. The original aim of brainstorming was exactly that – to create a streamlined, structured process that encouraged ‘unstructured’, i.e., creative thinking.
The role of the leader in enabling this sort of thinking is demanding – it requires a combination of strong leadership and self-restraint. It is vital that the team should first generate ideas, and that judgement of those ideas should come at a later stage. Once the flow of ideas has ended, the CMT considers each idea in turn. The leader ensures that each idea is given a fair hearing. It's now that the leader takes a more forthright role. It’s likely that time will be critical, so the leader will need to keep a certain pace – and indeed may give a time bar (e.g., ‘we must finish this within an hour’). Some ideas will be adopted as options; others will be discarded, at least for now.
It is time to take the next step of turning Options into Decisions.
Seasoned crisis managers will have seen how easy it is for a CMT to fall into the trap of avoiding decision making by endlessly seeking more information or arguing ceaselessly over the risks and benefits of varying options. It’s useful, therefore, to inject some structure into the process of converting analysis and options into decisions. Indeed, in the new ISO standard’s summary of effective crisis decision making, it notes the benefit of ‘training CMT members in the use of decision [making] techniques to reduce the effect of uncertainty on their cognitive abilities’9.
There are numerous decision-making tools. Some are very obvious, such as risk/benefit analysis and SWOT analysis. For technological crises, or where there is an element of fault-finding, then decision trees and cause-and-effect or fishbone analysis can be useful. For politically or socially complex crises, it can be useful to apply techniques such as De Bono’s six hats10 (whereby a CMT determinedly looks at a problem from a number of different angles), or the Delphi Method11 (a process of facilitated and iterative questioning of viewpoints). In crises where your organisation is pitted against an adversary (e.g., commercial, criminal, political or military), a version of Red Teaming12 can be useful, where your options and plans are looked at from your rival’s perspective. These three techniques are particularly useful if your team needs to challenge groupthink, individual or organisational biases and assumptions.
The important point about all these techniques is not which one you use – they are all useful – but that you understand and practise how to use a number of them at pace and under stress, and in a variety of situations. We should emphasise again that crisis response is rarely if ever linear: it is iterative. This takes us back to the concept of the OODA loop, where the organisation that can re-evaluate and re-plan most effectively and rapidly will be the most successful.
Boards and top management need to be confident that they and their CMTs can make the right decisions under stress. Such confidence is not warranted without thorough and realistic preparation and training, with a focus on setting direction, generating options and making decisions in a variety of scenarios and differing scale and complexity. CMTs should identify models and techniques which suit their situation and master them so that they are justifiably sure that they can apply them successfully in any circumstances.