Crisis management and decision-making: avoiding pitfalls

Oxford University’s Saïd Business School has been leading some interesting webinars since early April 2020. One of them titled “Lessons from crisis management: Rapid innovation”, with Anette Mikes and Marc Ventresca, provided useful insights about the current pandemic crisis across the spectrum of two other types of crises, namely the Chilean Mine Rescue (2010) and the Kursk submarine rescue mission (2000).

Although these crises cannot compare in type, size, and impact with the current pandemic crisis, they do provide valuable lessons for any crisis management and decision-making process.

Among the various interesting aspects, we may highlight the following based on the two speakers’ input (quote in brackets):

  • It is a necessity to be “brutally honest about the situation”, meaning transparency is key.
  • The leadership has to be able to “envision” (see what is plausible and feasible), “enroll” (convene stakeholders), “execute” (make decisions and implement them).
  • The leadership has to “convene people to find solutions” and “to direct action but not necessarily to control it”.
  • During crisis time, there is a need to constantly reassess the decisions made, to acknowledge errors and to solve and fix them, to reevaluate the crisis strategy management on a very regular basis. It has to remain flexible.
  • It is important to “listen to outsiders” and to look for “what is right” and not for “who is right”. This is absolutely crucial for effective decision-making.
  • It is important to favor “psychological safety” for finding practical solutions and to “avoid the blame-game”. The objective being here to enable innovative ideas within the framework of a much broader thinking and not to impede expression of ideas out of fear of rejection or blame.

These last two points are important and somehow point out to the groupthink phenomena: “a mode of thinking in which individual members of small cohesive groups tend to accept a viewpoint or conclusion that represents a perceived group consensus, whether or not the group members believe it to be valid, correct, or optimal. Groupthink reduces the efficiency of collective problem solving within such groups” (definition by Encyclopaedia Britannica).

And hence leading to erratic and even dangerous decisions with dire consequences in the long run because of premature consensus.

Of course, the groupthink phenomena is bound to specific parameters such as a high degree of cohesion, lack of clear procedures for decision-making, homogenous socio-cultural backgrounds etc… But in crisis management decision-making, it is very important to avoid falling into the trap of closed reflection.

What is certainly necessary to keep in mind here is to strive for what is called cognitive diversity: “cognitive diversity is the inclusion of people who have different styles of problem-solving and can offer unique perspectives because they think differently” (TechTarget definition).

I welcome your thoughts and comments.

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