While the COVID pandemic is far from over, the rollout of vaccines continues to herald the promise of a healthier and (eventually COVID-free) world. Fresh off the trauma and tactical chaos of a historic global disruption, business leaders are understandably inclined to want to take a well-earned deep breath and get back to something that feels like normal after an intense season of crisis management issues.

There’s a palpable air of exhaustion among many members of those crisis management teams who have expended so much time and energy navigating the turbulent waters of a global pandemic. Many of those individuals have had to balance their own day-to-day obligations in the workplace, on top of the daily stress of managing unprecedented crisis conditions. But now is not the time to relax. Far from it. Now is a critical window of opportunity to start to answer perhaps the single most important question facing companies today: how can you be better prepared for the next crisis? What lessons can be learned from the successes and failures of the past year and a half, and what can be done right now to build stronger, more resilient and empowered crisis management teams?

Expanded teams

One issue many companies need to rethink is who exactly is serving on their crisis management teams, and how many alternates may be needed if (when) we are beset by another long-term ongoing crisis. Burnout and emotional and psychological wear and tear were (and remain) a very real issue throughout the pandemic. Especially for smaller and mid-sized companies without the resources to mobilize a large team, relying on the same handful of individuals is a daunting proposition. Consider reexamining and, when necessary, realigning roles and responsibilities, and expanding your team of crisis and emergency management personnel to help share the burden going forward.

Mobility and flexibility

It became clear very early on in the pandemic that many companies simply weren’t prepared to close their doors and quickly transition to having their people work remotely. Fortunately, most companies eventually figured out some kind of viable solution that worked for them. Going forward, however, it’s still a point of emphasis that demands extensive preparation and focus. Whether it’s with the assistance of a third-party partner or not, companies absolutely must have a reliable option and flexible operational blueprint for safely shutting down in-person operations and pivoting to virtual/mobile model. Keep in mind that when the next crisis hits, many companies will be better prepared—and the competitive costs of failing to be one of them will be exacerbated. Recall as well that the internet is fragile. Online operations were the saving grace for so many during the pandemic, but what if the next crisis impacts internet service speed, quality, or availability? What if the power grid is impacted? Companies would be wise to include emergency alternatives like satellite options and analog solutions in their updated crisis management planning.

Leveraging the moment

One of the greatest challenges for C-Suite executives and crisis planning professionals going forward is to effectively use what we’ve just been through. There’s a natural tendency to want to get back to “normal,” but this is a critical moment to take advantage of the fact that you have people’s attention. There is a heightened awareness right now of the fact that the Black Swan events discussed in the past are not theoretical. We all saw firsthand that a crisis can happen—and that the impact can be swift and all-encompassing. Use that awareness to take necessary steps to protect your assets in the next crisis. This is a rare and valuable opportunity to restructure your crisis plan around what you saw unfold in your industry, your competitors, and your own operation. Don’t give in to “crisis fatigue.” Keep the heard-earned leverage from this crisis going—and use that momentum to make sure your team is being vigilant and proactive in preparing for tomorrow’s crisis.

Consolidation and prioritization

In some companies, the distinctions between disaster planning, continuity planning, emergency planning, crisis management, regional crisis management programs, and other related teams has become messy and unwieldy. Each of these functions can become its own living bureaucracy, with staff group rivalries and potential competition for resources. Because that bureaucratic inertia can become inefficient and counterproductive, this might be the right time for C-Suite personnel to think hard about focusing and consolidating these groups in a more formal way. The goal is to have teams that aren’t redundant and aren’t getting in each other’s way, but are instead coordinated and synergistic. In a related vein, one of the side-effects of this chaotic landscape is that some companies are not prioritizing risk management effectively. There is a lot of noise about all the risk out there, but surprisingly few companies have conducted an effective risk assessment for their industry and company in the broadest sense. A good crisis management team understands the importance of context and keeping their eye on the big picture—and not getting lost in internal minutiae.

Leadership and expertise

When it comes to preparing for the next crisis, value expertise. Don’t just go through the motions. Too many companies waste time and resources doing things that make them feel like they are doing something—but won’t actually reduce their risk or make them better prepared. Consider assigning a dedicated risk management executive. While smaller companies cannot justify this, it’s increasingly important for Fortune 500-type of organizations to have an executive in place dedicated solely to security and crisis management. It’s no coincidence that Boards of Directors are now becoming more interested in making sure that there is an effective crisis management infrastructure and leadership in place—along with protocols and processes for smart and strategic security decision-making.

People and processes

Finally, make sure there is absolute clarity regarding people and processes. Make sure you specify who makes the ultimate decisions both before and during a crisis, and that they have the requisite decision-making authority. Have structures and processes in place, and make sure there is clarity about both. Make the nomenclature and emergency-response processes clearly delineated. What officially constitutes an emergency? What specific processes are in place for decision-making and emergency response? People use emergency and crisis interchangeably—but there needs to be clear language about who responds (as well as how and when). That assessment can change, even within the same company. The same incident might be a crisis at one location, and a minor hiccup at another. 

As the recent report of a human case of H5N6 bird flu in a hospitalized patient in China has shown, the next pandemic could be lurking just around the corner. We may be past the pandemic peak, but COVID will continue to cause disruption for years to come. Geopolitical turbulence and unrest appear to be the new normal for the foreseeable future. Which is why there is no time to waste: applying heard-earned lessons now and preparing for the next crisis should be a top priority for decision-makers in every company and in every industry.

Published July 20, 2021

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