tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Preparation and focus on people key in crisis management

A month after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast and flooded New Orleans, elected officials, pundits and others continue to second-guess nearly every decision made during the crisis. Mayor C. Ray Nagin, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, former FEMA Director Michael Brown and President George W. Bush all made decisions which affected the well-being of thousands of people and their property.

Most Americans could only sit and watch the events unfold on television. Many responded with money and other forms of relief. But could we learn something from this event about decision-making –- something that might help them make good decisions in a crisis?

I asked three business professors about the process of decision-making. Can a person learn how to make good decisions? The consensus from these experts is “yes.”

“A key part of leadership is decision-making,” said Pierre Meyer, a consultant living in University Park, Fla. “Strategic thinking always has an element of worst-case analysis. Predicting the worst case prepares an executive team.

“In New Orleans, they knew the worst case but pretended it wouldn’t happen. They did a lot of simulations but said that it may not happen. That was their mistake. [Businesses] have to go forward as if the worst case scenario will happen.”

“The thing is, the worst case scenario projected is never worse enough because you haven’t experienced it,” said Lyle Sussman, a professor at the University of Louisville. “Chaos by definition is unpredictable.”

John Hamilton, a business consultant in St. Paul, Minn., said potential problem analysis is particularly challenging. “This is where people fall asleep at the switch,” he said. “A good analysis will identify pivotal points where something can go wrong. It will ask what is the likelihood of something going wrong, what are the effects if they do go wrong, and how could they be prevented. What is the immediate plan of action if something goes wrong, what triggers the plan, and who is accountable for the response?”

Sussman said that in a crisis, it is important to have a team that is willing to “break the rules” to get the job done. “In many situations, particularly a crisis, the normal rules and bureaucracy will slow you down, and prevent you from solving the problem quick enough,” Sussman said.

He cited an example that Captain Michael Abrashaff wrote about in his popular management book “It’s Your Ship.” Abrashaff turned one of the least efficient ships in the Navy into a top performer.

“He needed to get some stuff for his ship,” recounted Sussman. “The normal procurement channels for the Navy would have taken forever, further demoralizing his crew. So he just used his personal credit card to buy the stuff himself at a local Wal-Mart. It was against policy, but something got done.”

Sussman also said it is important for leaders to get as close to the problem situation as possible. “If the police call you in the middle of the night and tell you the [business] has blown up, go to the site,” he said. “Get as much first-hand knowledge of the situation as possible. If the police call you and tell you [you have] been robbed and people have been shot, get to the police station, or to the hospital right away. Go where the suffering people are.”

Sussman said leaders need to be able to put themselves in the shoes of the victims. Sometimes leaders “have a hard time seeing the world through the eyes of people who will be affected by most problems,” Sussman said. “You need to try to see the world as those in trouble see it.”

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