This article discusses key factors for organizational resilience when leading during a crisis, focusing on the coping stage.
The second stage of resilience in Dr. Stephanie Duchek’s model is called the Coping stage. During this stage, she suggests that organizations must be able to take actions in a couple of ways. First, high stakes leaders must be able to accept that they are, in fact, in a crisis. Second, they must be able to develop and implement solutions to resolve the crisis. This activity will provide some additional color on these two areas of action. Once again, if you are interested in the research underlying the findings shared by Dr. Duchek, you can reference her full article, which is available here
It is interesting that one of the key challenges for high stakes leaders during a crisis is accepting that a crisis is actually taking place.
In their Harvard Business Review article The Quest for Resilience, authors Gary Hamel and Lisa Vaelikangas suggest that to be resilient, organizations much be able to overcome what they describe as the cognitive challenge. This challenge is presented as the need for an enterprise to be able to “become entirely free of denial, nostalgia, and arrogance.” Part of their explanation for this requirement is an acknowledgement that the increasingly complex and turbulent business environment (what was described earlier as the VUCA environment) should elevate an organization’s interest in looking for signs of trouble. Alas, a great deal of research suggests that this heightened sense of awareness is not widely adopted. The article goes on to share several examples of companies who simply failed to embrace the reality that they were in the midst of a crisis. As the authors describe the cognitive challenge: “To be resilient, an organization must dramatically reduce the time it takes to go from ‘that can’t be true’ to ‘we must face the world as it is’.” This defines the challenge facing high stakes leaders: How can we help our organizations embrace the idea that crises are no longer a question of ‘if’, but ‘when’?
One explanation for our discomfort with complex topics such as the nature of the crisis environment and our relationship with them stems from our discomfort with the notion that more we know about certain complex topics, the greater our awareness of how much we truly don’t know. John Meacham explained in an article titled Wisdom and the Context of Knowledge:
“Each new domain of knowledge appears simple from the distance of ignorance. The more we learn about a particular domain, the greater the number of uncertainties, doubts, questions and complexities. Each bit of knowledge serves as the thesis from which additional questions or antithesis arise.”
Karl Weick, a researcher and author on the topic of sensemaking, followed up on this premise in an article titled The Collapse of Sensemaking in Organizations, with this conclusion, framed in the context of what he describes as wisdom:
“In a fluid world, wise people know that they don’t fully understand what is happening right now, because they have never seen precisely this event before. Extreme confidence and extreme caution both can destroy what organizations most need in changing times, namely, curiosity, openness, and complex sensing. The overconfident shun curiosity because they feel they know most of what there is to know. The overcautious shun curiosity for fear it will only deepen their uncertainties. Both the cautious and the confident are closed-minded, which means neither makes good judgments. It is this sense in which wisdom, which avoids extremes, improves adaptability.”
We will not, in this course, present an elegant solution to the cognitive challenge of some leader’s inability or unwillingness to accept that a crisis is taking place. We simply don’t have the time. But as you are now much more aware of the ubiquity of this significant leadership challenge, you are better positioned to identify it when it occurs. When it does, you may find it helpful to gather your leadership team and conduct a thought experiment wherein the team discusses possible scenarios as a potential crisis plays out. “If this escalates further,” you might ask the team, “how might this situation impact our company, our stakeholders, our operations, our future?” Perhaps a discussion of these questions can help high stakes leaders work through their own version of the cognitive challenge.Developing and implementing solutions
Once again, as this course is quite short and limited in the extent to which we can deeply explore complex topics such as the development and implementation of crisis management plans, we won’t be able to adequately address these topics. Later in this course, an entire module is dedicated to Crisis Preparation, but this module won’t help you develop specific crisis solutions. This is something you and your crisis management team will have to do on its own. What we can do in this course, however, is to examine why solution development and implementation are so important, and how these processes serve as foundational elements of organizational resilience.
When an organization finds itself in a crisis situation (and accepts this fact), steps must be taken to resolve the threat. What steps? Where do these steps come from? As no two crises are the same, and their appearance is almost impossible to predict, is it reasonable to assume that organizations shouldn’t waste their time on preparation? No, it is not. This is precisely why the resilience model we have been exploring includes some degree of crisis preparedness in all three of its stages. Solution planning can be accomplished in the Anticipation stage, as organizations should be able to predict the types of crises most likely to appear at their organization. In fact, an entire module in this course is dedicated to crisis typologies, just to serve this purpose—to help organizations know what types of crisis to look for and what types to be ready to address should they appear.
Naturally, crisis planning that takes place in the Anticipation stage will be generic. Pre-planning will not be able to predict specific details of a future crisis. These details will need to be incorporated into previously developed plans or those created from scratch in the midst of a crisis—during the Coping stage. In either case, these solutions will be specific to the crisis at hand. So, who creates these plans? How are they created? How are they formalized and communicated out to those expected to execute them? Who does, in fact, execute them? These are all great questions that will be addressed later in this course. For now, let us simply acknowledge that resilient organizations are prepared to develop and implement solutions to crises when they appear. This preparation involves formal processes for the creation and execution of such plans.