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Crisis management post-COVID-19: 7 questions that reveal your organization’s readiness for the next crisis 

Published 17 March 2021 in Leadership • 4 min read

Now is the time to ask 7 questions to ensure your organization has learned how to be crisis ready. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in some hard-won successes and some hard-to-bear failures for nearly every organization. But while we might now be tempted to put it all behind us, the crisis experience offers vital lessons in how to ensure these valuable learnings are not lost. They can, in fact, form the backbone of your organization’s response to the next emergency. Here are the key questions that will ensure your team is always crisis ready.  

The 7 crunch-time questions to ask 

1. Are you ready to shift to ‘war-fighting mode’?  

As many organizations have experienced, decentralized organizations – which operate well in ‘normal’ times – often prove woefully inadequate in times of crisis. Why? Because their responses tend to be piecemeal and incoherent. Effective crisis management demands rapid, centralized responses and this, in turn, requires clear lines of command. Think of it as the ability to shift into what the military terms ‘war-fighting mode’. This means you should have a centralized command structure ready to be activated in times of crisis, including a designated crisis manager and a supporting response team who function as the crisis manager’s staff. 

2. Have you developed the right set of planning scenarios?  

It’s essential to create a set of crisis scenarios that guide the development and execution of response plans. Given the impact of COVID-19, now is a good time to review your scenarios to be sure they include pandemics and other types of potential global disruptions, including their impacts on customers, suppliers, facilities, and employees. It need not be an exhaustive list of everything that could possibly happen, but it should represent a broad range of potential emergency situations that your organization could plausibly face. 

3. Do you have a flexible set of ‘response modules’?  

Crisis response teams should be able to pull combinations of pre-set response ‘modules’ off the shelf to deal with emerging scenarios. This could include protocols, for example, for the temporary closure of a facility. Modularizing the elements of a crisis response plan provides the response team with flexibility to rapidly deal with unexpected scenarios or combinations of scenarios. If you have added new types of scenarios, then you also should evaluate whether you need to make corresponding changes or additions to your response modules. This is necessary because real crises rarely evolve as you expect them to. If response options aren’t flexible, novel events or combinations of events can yield ineffective or ‘brittle’ responses.  

4. Has a ‘war room’ been identified and resourced?  

This means having a designated command post in a discrete, secure location that can be rapidly converted for use by the crisis response team. Requirements include access to computer systems and crucial lines of communication, contact information for key internal and external stakeholders, crisis management plans, etc. Ready access to critical resources should also be available. Examples include backup power generation, modest reserves of food and water, and medical supplies. Agreements should also be negotiated with external agencies to provide specific resources in time of crisis, for example, augmented communications support. 

5. Are there designated communication channels and protocols?  

These are easily activated channels for reaching all or important subsets of employees to make announcements, for example, via email or an intranet. To the extent possible, there should be redundancy in these channels in case of loss, for example, of the mobile network. To speed things up, generic draft messages can be composed in advance. Depending on the organization, there should also be mechanisms for rapidly locating key staff (e.g. via check-in web pages or call-in lines). 

6. Do you conduct regular simulation exercises?  

The best plans are worthless if they exist only on paper. Regular exercises conducted by the crisis response team must be scheduled to occur at least biannually. They should include the regular testing of communication channels, and an inventory of resources and, in order to be most effective, the tests should not be communicated in advance in order to test and finesse response speeds. 

7. Is there disciplined post-crisis review?  

Each crisis provides an opportunity for organizational learning to occur and plans to be revised. But this learning only occurs if the mechanisms are in place to make it happen. The crisis response team should conduct a post-crisis review after each significant event. The guiding questions should be: what went well and what went poorly? What key lessons have been learned? What changes do we need to make to our organization, procedures, and support resources more responsive for the future? 



Michael Watkins - IMD Professor

Michael D. Watkins

Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change at IMD

Michael D Watkins is Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change at IMD, and author of The First 90 Days, Master Your Next Move, Predictable Surprises, and 12 other books on leadership and negotiation. His book, The Six Disciplines of Strategic Thinking, explores how executives can learn to think strategically and lead their organizations into the future. A Thinkers 50-ranked management influencer and recognized expert in his field, his work features in HBR Guides and HBR’s 10 Must Reads on leadership, teams, strategic initiatives, and new managers. Over the past 20 years, he has used his First 90 Days® methodology to help leaders make successful transitions, both in his teaching at IMD, INSEAD, and Harvard Business School, where he gained his PhD in decision sciences, as well as through his private consultancy practice Genesis Advisers.


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