If you respond to a crisis, it requires doing a lot of right things, and doing them right: You need to have access to the right resources, the right people, the right tools, and you must find the right tone. But one crucial element is often overlooked: the right rhythm. Managing a crisis at the right rhythm will prevent you from responding to the situation with too hasty decisions or with too much delay.

Let’s make up this simple case: You are responsible for the Emergency Response of a large oil drilling company. It’s 11 a.m. and you get a notification from one of your platforms reporting a fire. No doubt, this is a serious situation which can quickly emerge into a major catastrophe with maximum exposure to media and stakeholders. You immediately call in the Emergency Response team and kick off the work. From this very minute on, the rhythm of your leadership is crucial for how well you are responding to this crisis.

Let’s frame this first. What exactly is rhythm, and how is it different from “pace”? At good old Merriam-Webster, I found the following definition:

Simple definition: a regular, repeated pattern of events, changes, activities, etc.

Full definition: movement, fluctuation, or variation marked by the regular recurrence or natural flow of related elements

Rhythm, we learn, is different from pace, which is the speed at which a music piece is performed, a speech is held or an activity is delivered. Velocity is one thing, and for sure, a low-speed response to a crisis is certainly not advisable, but my point here is rather that it is not just about the speed in the response; it is also the pattern of repetitive actions which will help to manage a crisis properly.

“…it is the pattern of repetitive actions which will help to manage an emerging crisis properly”

If an organization would only fall for the demand of speed, it would inevitably publish inaccuracies, take false decisions, misjudge and thus create a crisis within a crisis. At the same time, it is part of the anatomy of a crisis that the situation is in flux, it will change, new facts will emerge, it might get get worse, better or the crisis takes on a complete life on its own. That being said, it takes a specific rhythm to adapt to the “moving target” situation and to possibly adapt to the changes that come with the crisis.

Let’s stick with the scenario of the oil company. The first thing you’ve obviously done is the activation of the crisis response team. Once you have most players on board and their instruments are tuned (notebooks booted, cell phones plugged, manuals pulled), you will get into the rhythm of the crisis, and its “regular recurrence of related elements”. But different from a music piece, the related elements which you want to put into a sequence (or fluctuation) are:

  1. Assessment of the situation
    What has happened? Here, it’s all about collecting as many facts as possible in a give time frame. Don’t spend too much time on it, try to describe the situation that your organization is in. So, in our example, this is not just the fact that there is a fire on a platform, but rather that the fact that will likely result in a large crisis for your company and will require many resources etc.
  2. First aid
    Now, it’s not the time to develop a full fledged response concept. This will come over time, as you get into the “groove”. Now, it’s all about the very first, most important measures. In our example, it is to deploy your accident protocols, maybe to get the right experts going to the accident site, or to establish contact with the first responders of the respective country.
  3. Impact analysis and definition of goals
    Next step is: what impact will the situation you are facing have on your organization. There is some guessing, and it takes a quiet moment in the middle of the storm to determine the impact, but it is crucial, as everything that follows will build on these assumptions. In our case scenario, we now conclude that the impact will be gigantic, if the fire cannot be contained, as the platform will most likely explode and a natural disaster will follow. The goals are next. What do you want to achieve by managing the crisis? Saving the lives of the crew on the platform, containing the fire, stopping the fire.
  4. Prioritization
    There is most likely a long list of things which need to be done now. Part of managing a crisis is to distinct between urgent and important, and thus to create a list of priorities.
  5. Measures
    You have your goals, and you have prioritized what needs to be done first. Now go for it. Well done is better than well said, so now is the time for execution. At this point of time, the first, initial crisis response meeting can be terminated, not without first agreeing on a second meeting, which will probably be only one hour later, in the beginning of an emerging situation. Those which have gathered can now go for action, take measures, collect additional information or continue to analyze the situation.
  6. Options
    In most cases, the crisis management team has different options. It is time to take some decisions. Here, it often comes to the point when the top management needs to be involved, and where most decisions will have a huge impact on the business. Will you shut down all similarly built platforms as a precautionary measure? Do you hire these super-expensive Red-Adair-like fire experts from Dallas, or do you try to contain the fire with you own means? All these considerations need to be prepared, you should have a recommendations, but many decisions can only be taken by a management board. Now is the time to clarify what your options are and which direction your company takes.
The rhythm of crisis management, in a nutshell

The rhythm of crisis management, in a nutshell.

Are we through? Not yet… Actually, you just managed the first cycle. Remember the repetitive nature of the action that I mentioned?! Now is the time to go back to square one in my list. Reconvene and start over. Assess the situation again. What has changed? Which external factors have come into play?… Are the first aid actions in place, do they show any impact? … and on and on you go again. After time, when the course of the events slows down, you may also adapt your management cycle to the decrease in speed.

One trap that many crisis management teams fall into: Spend too much time on the single items. If you don’t have an information yet, don’t stop the cycle and wait until it comes through (which may actually never be the case…), but move on and make decisions, take actions, based on what you know. Discipline is an important element of managing a crisis, as it is to direct an orchestra and make sure that everyone is playing by the same rhythm. If you keep up the rhythm, by avoiding lengthy discussions but also by taking all available information into consideration, you are enroute to master the management of the crisis in the best possible way. Your audience will be pleased.

Photo credit: Music via photopin (license)

Update (08.02.2017): A vigilant reader has made me aware that there is a number of publications, models and books that are all circling around this topic, including the German book Leadership in crises from Laurent F. Carrel (2010), and the two Switzerland-based crisis management consultants Verismo and Gauss Consulting. If you are interested in diving in deeper, follow any of these links or just google “leadership crisis management rhythm” 🙂


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