4C Insights

Principal Consultant Ben White reflects on lessons learned from the last 18 months of remote crisis management training

2021-10-13

Over the last 18 months, 4C Strategies have been kept very busy helping organisations, particularly at the strategic level, develop their crisis management and decision-making capability. Principal Consultant Ben White describes the process of leading Crisis Decision Making Training remotely, and the outcomes he has observed.

From preparing for, to managing crises

Looking back to March 2020, 4C Strategies was delivering crisis management training and exercises across Europe, ranging from simple discussion-based exercises to full distributed simulation exercises. As the pandemic took hold on organisations, there was a rapid switch from preparing and training for a crisis to actually managing one day-to-day.

This meant that all our activity stopped, and more importantly we were no longer able to visit our clients in person to deliver these exercises and training events. The 4C crisis management consulting teams looked into how we could take what we had been doing these last few years and be able to still continue to develop capability remotely.

We also had one key thought in my head when talking to customers. To use the analogy of an athlete, just because the athlete is at the Olympics and performing in their competition, it does not mean that they stop training, rehearsing, practicing and developing between each race. For Crisis leaders we feel it should be no different. So we developed further a very simple training session to act as the ‘gym’ for the crisis leader, and called it the Decision Making Exercise.

What is a Decision Making Exercise?

Decision Making Exercises are deceptively simple decision-making exercises, usually consisting of no more than a few paragraphs of text describing the situation. Expert 4C Consultants facilitate each session and place the participants in the role of the Crisis Management Team of an organisation they know nothing about. This is a deliberate move to ensure everyone can approach the situation from an equal standpoint and no organisational roles, ranks, or seniority can get in the way.

The objective here is to follow the process and not to see who shouts loudest first. The situation develops into a significant issue that adversely affects the organisation. Participants use the 4C Strategies decision making model to guide them through the identification of the Facts, Assumptions, Direction, and then who, what and how to communicate. The decision-making model forces the participants to think in a logical and joined up way and importantly captures the rationale behind the decision making that takes place.

We have now developed four or five scenarios that grow in complexity. Each one designed so that there is no right or wrong answer, just different ways to approach the problem depending on the assumptions that are collectively made by the crisis management team. From contamination of a production line, through to data breaches, cyber attacks and building fires, each scenario is designed and facilitated to bring out the best in the participants. We use a growing number of software tools to support the process and ensure it is as interactive as possible.

Key takeaways

Our team of experts at 4C have developed and honed these sessions over the last 18 months and made them fit for purpose in the new ways we now work. They are designed to be interactive, short, impactful, memorable and developmental. The effects on the participants have been profound, and here are some of the key takeaways we have observed:

  • 1. The participant’s ability to assess the strategic reality of the situation improves dramatically.

    They learn to see not just the collection of disconnected facts but to weave these together to identify the narrative that allows them to fill the gaps with collective and agreed assumptions, anticipating what is likely to happen next and why. They begin to see the situation from the customer or external stakeholders’ point of view and recognise the impact this may have on their assumptions.

  • 2. They begin to think strategically – not just to understand the strategic concept but to actually think differently.

    We have observed participants beginning to think beyond what they wanted to do and how, to also consider how they would interact with others’ perception of the situation.

  • 3. They begin to understand how their assumptions both influence and fit into the larger situation.

    They learn to think ‘so what?’ and to always ask themselves what the ‘so what?’ is of an assumption. Assumptions are continually scrutinised and revisited during the crisis management life cycle.

"...just because the athlete is at the Olympics and performing in their competition, it does not mean that they stop training, rehearsing, practicing and developing between each race. For Crisis leaders we feel it should be no different. So we developed further a very simple training session to act as the ‘gym’ for the crisis leader and called it the Decision Making Exercise."
Ben White, Principal Consultant, 4C Strategies
  • 4. They learn to be more comfortable with uncertainty – to use assumptions in a way that reduces uncertainty but more importantly to think in a way that mitigates its effects.

    The first lesson is always acceptance. Initially a participant’s first instinct invariably is to try to get more information before deciding, regardless of the time this might take. They soon learn that they are never going to get complete certainty, so they should act without it. The model encourages participants to make assumptions. Assumptions that are collectively discussed and agreed, thus making them something which all participants believe to be true. By the end of most sessions, we often see participants becoming more and more comfortable with making assumptions, shouting them out even, on the basis of best-case and worst-case planning.

  • 5. Their ability to provide clear, concise direction improves dramatically.

    At first, the direction is always quite task and action-oriented. As their skills develop and they ask themselves ‘so what?’ or ‘why are we giving this direction?’, the direction becomes more strategic, and of course clearer and more concise.

  • 6. The sessions build relationships.

    In a number of the sessions the participants did not know each other well, if at all, or they may know each other but only as that ‘other manager across the table in the weekly meeting’. These sessions are invaluable in bringing people together, in a ‘safe to fail’ environment. People get to see how others think, and see what each person can ‘bring to the party’. They of course also go through a shared experience which will help when they have to do it for real.

  • 7. Their mental models improve exponentially in robustness and sophistication.

    Participants account for more contingencies, incorporate more factors, consider more assumptions and see more potential combinations. They begin to appreciate the situation as a complex system of interacting parts that can be broken down into distinct segments rather than this huge crisis that can’t be managed. At the end of each session, and particularly if a number of sessions have been held, they are all thinking at a completely different level from where they started.

The last 18 months of delivering these sessions has been a powerful experience for me as well. It has confirmed conclusively that with the right approach you most definitely can train people remotely to be better decision-makers. We have now seen it demonstrated powerfully in different sectors, organisations and team structures.

This experience has also confirmed, however, that there are no easy shortcuts. It requires investment in time and effort, but we have no doubt it is worth that investment. Ultimately the participant, and therefore the organisation from which they are from, will be much better prepared and have a much greater capability to meet the challenges they will face.

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