How to Prepare for a Crisis You Couldn’t Possibly Predict

Most of us in the change business spend our energies planning for changes we know will happen — a system upgrade or new implementation, organizational restructure, or a merger / acquisition. While we can manage planned changes, what happens when something goes wrong with things we don’t expect to fail? What do we do? How do we react?

According to Chris Clearfield and András Tilcsik, “… sooner or later, every team faces an unexpected crisis: technology breaks, a competitor makes a disruptive move, a promising project fails, a key employee quits, consumers have a negative reaction to a new product — the list goes on.”

For over five-years, in an attempt to figure out the best ways to react to unplanned changes, Clearfield and Tilcsik talked to “a broad swath of people — executives, pilots, NASA engineers, Wall Street traders, accident investigators, doctors, and social scientists — who have discovered valuable lessons about how to prepare for the unexpected.”

The results of their research are the lessons found in their book, Meltdown — Why our Systems Fail and What We Can Do About It. This article discusses three of those lessons:

  1. Learn to stop: “… sticking to a plan in the face of surprising new information can be a recipe for disaster… Managers need to foster norms that help people overcome the sense of defeat that comes from halting an ongoing process or giving up on a planned course of action.”
  2. Do, monitor, diagnose: “Sometimes stopping isn’t an option.” Based on analysis of simulated emergency drills, researchers found that successful medical teams solved problems by working through “a pattern — a cycle — of moving from tasks to monitoring to diagnosis and then back to tasks again.”
  3. Know something about everybody else’s job: Film crews and SWAT teams face surprises regularly — power outages stop production or the layout of a house if different than expected. Researchers found that “one critical factor that enables these teams to handle surprises is that members are familiar with everyone else’s work and understand how their various tasks fit together.”

While disaster planning is common in certain industries, what these authors discuss is different. They are suggesting that companies can also prepare for unexpected crises by ensuring corporate practices and mindsets encourage:

  • Norms that allow employees to boldly speak up or take corrective actions when appropriate
  • Practices that reinforce cross-training and disciplined approaches to problem-solving

Not a bad way to plan for the unplannable.

Contact us and we can help you survey your environment to identify areas where this kind of change preparedness could be implemented.