Does the following scenario sound familiar?
You identify an issue within your organization but unable to get the support to solve it before it turns critical. You communicate the issue on several occasions and it is ignored, that is until the issue becomes a real crisis. Once the issue becomes a crisis it becomes THE organizational priority. Resources once unavailable to resolve the issue proactively are somehow made available. You are left saying to yourself (maybe out loud) "I identified and communicated that issue long ago many but nobody paid attention!"
This approach is what is referred to as management by crisis. It is a reactive method of management in which strategies are formulated as events occur.
In management by crisis, certain situations are known to exist within the organization but for a variety of reasons they are ignored or not seen as an immediate threats. In such an environment, planning doesn't occur and resources remain unallocated until the issue actually becomes a crisis. More time and resources are then spent to repair and manage by crisis then were required to prevent it. The New Orleans' levees come to mind.
This is a different concept than crisis management. Crisis management implies that the timing of a situation was relatively unpredictable. For example, an earthquake, tornado, or a zero-day virus attack. Crisis management forecasts a potential crisis and plans how how to manage it with a generic strategy based on experience and anticipation. As a crisis unfolds the manager identifies its nature and then intervenes using the plan in order to minimize damage and to expedite recovery.
In the Katrina example, FEMA (should have) served as a crisis management organization. In contrast, the US Army Corps of Engineers apparently managed the issue by crisis. They apparently were aware the levees would not hold years ago and failed to step in to do anything until after the disaster. They have spent significantly more to repair the broken levees than it would have taken to build them properly to begin with.
While it is a desirable trait for a leader to have a set of crisis management skills, it is not that uncommon to see leaders that manage by crisis. It is a type of leadership which is built on managing day-to-day issues and not on strategic planning. Some leaders may actually see the identification of a crisis, the action steps and resources allocated to resolve it, and the elimination of complaints as being an aggressive / proactive management style. In fact, it is a defensive / reactive / passive management approach.
One way to spot an organization that manages by crisis is when the success and direction of the organization is determined by the complaints they get. Those issues with the most complaints are given a high organizational priority. Project planning and decisions are guided by the potential for complaints.
When the complaints decrease the leadership pats itself on the back for dealing with the issue. The incorrect assumption is that no complaints means everything is fine. The Hawthorne Effect is also an issue in organizations managed by crisis: the increased attention to the crisis results in a temporary increase in effort focused on the issue.
Strategic planning is one way to break out of the management by crisis cycle. By creating a strategic plan and using it set direction many more issues can be properly anticipated. The result is a managerial approach that is more aggressive in nature and is focused in on managing change. When change is effectively managed it becomes a part of the organizational routine. The strategic plan becomes the road map for planning and critical issues can be addressed more proactively.
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