Rhys Morris | Palladium - May 06 2020
What COVID-19 is Teaching Us About Crisis Management

Rhys Morris, Global Safety & Security, Palladium

COVID-19 has provided the single largest economic and public health challenge to the global community since the Second World War. How can we learn from this outbreak to improve our future approach to Crisis Management? Palladium’s Managing Partner and Head of Safety & Security Rhys Morris shares his takeaways.

First reporting of the nature of COVID-19 began in late December 2019, with a rising clamour of commentators speculating on the need for coordinated and holistic responses from January 2020. Yet, by most measures, many countries have remained slow to respond, revealing gaps in their ability to manage crisis effectively.

What’s caused the delays? Crisis is a cruel magnifier of weaknesses in any system, and COVID’s sheer scale has revealed the following points of failure:

Hesitancy – There is always resistance to declaring a crisis (the fear of ‘crying wolf’ is real); however, over-caution will fatally hamper recovery.

Strategic Uncertainty – Public health, economic survival, and political expediency are competing priorities, and a lack of focus dilutes effort, creating discord and confusion.

Planning and Supplies – PPE, ventilators and test kits have become unfortunate bywords of the current crisis.

Communication and Leadership – We’ve seen the propagation of rumour and falsehoods, reactive responses, and political recriminations, all of which kill morale and divide us.

Ultimately, these are factors that hamper crisis management, drive inefficiency, and delay recovery. They force effort into superfluous tasks that are correctional and do not add meaningfully to the effective management of a crisis.

What can we learn?

While modelling all future crisis planning on COVID-19 (or any single event) would be a mistake, those organisations that understand their shortcomings are best able to adapt to crisis situations. Here are four lessons we can glean from the current crisis.

1. Unify Under Strategic Outcomes

The engine of any crisis response is alignment and focus on the highest priority objectives. This means not only establishing our objectives, but unifying teams, organisations, or nations around them.

In many cases, this can be done using a strategy execution methodology like the Balanced Scorecard, which introduces key performance indicators and a method to monitor the effectiveness of the approach.

At Palladium, we identified three clear objectives from the outset (to keep staff safe and well; to deliver on our commitments to clients and beneficiaries; to make our support and expertise available to any who need it). Doing so has allowed us to remove uncertainty around the intent of every decision made, and has driven a sense of shared endeavour across our organisation.

2. Take Rapid and Decisive Action

Hesitancy is the enemy of the decisive action needed to move a country or an organisation toward recovery.

Crisis situations require us to adopt solutions quickly, to fail rapidly, and to adjust successfully – all while understanding that the application of a “good enough” approach can make some uncomfortable. The key is to foster agility and flexibility, and to build systems that allow rapid scale-up and constant communication.

South Korea’s “all of government” approach, focussing on containment and widespread testing, paid dividends when it came to the management of COVID-19. The country maintains one of the lowest rates of transmission and death of any developed nation affected by the virus.

Decisive action around testing, identification of infected communities, and restriction of travel have curtailed the spread of the disease and the subsequent pace of recovery. Despite a dense and highly mobile population, the speed of the response has effectively constrained COVID cases in South Korea.

3. Prioritise Analysis and Information Sharing

When it comes to global terrorism, systematic techniques to analyse information and a commitment to information sharing and alarms have limited the ability of terrorist groups to move freely across international borders.

While the target is certainly different, the collaborative aim and the analysis techniques can be applied in a global pandemic.

However, rather than collaborate, countries seem to have become yet more insular as COVID-19 has spread, with xenophobia simmering as borders closed. The scale and speed of transmission suggests that the threat the virus presented in our connected world was underestimated.

We must learn the lesson that deprioritising analysis and information sharing is incredibly dangerous. Fundamentally, it removes the time we need to make decisions in an evolving crisis – the time to build ventilators, to source PPE, and to construct suitable testing methodologies.

4. Access Support More Efficiently

During a major crisis, governments need to quickly understand what additional resources are available to them, including which organisations can produce urgently needed supplies or provide altered services. Instead of scrambling to find this help once a crisis hits, countries would benefit from having the information ready to be pulled up when required.

This requires, during the crisis planning stage, determining what kinds of support might be needed in crises and then establishing a process for collecting the necessary information from organisations. This is a big data initiative that should span across borders and functions, with data categorised in a logical manner and accessible through a user-friendly platform.

5. Communicate and Lead

Clear, empathetic, and constant communication is a hallmark of strong leadership.

New Zealand has eased restrictions, having limited COVID transmission and managed the outbreak. During the lockdown, we have seen stoic acceptance of strict rules and a rate of infection that is lower than any predicted.

While feted for her communication “superpower”, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has led her country through the outbreak with empathy and understanding, backed by a conspicuous lack of hyperbole and speculation. It is this humanity, determination and accessibility – frequent traits of highly effective leaders – that has driven unity and the efficacy of her government’s response.

Building Back Stronger

The truth is that COVID isn’t teaching us anything new about Crisis Management; rather, it is a stark illuminator of known fission points in preparedness and leadership.

Successful Crisis Management is all about getting the right people into the right space to be able to make the right decisions to achieve a unified strategic aim. This assertion holds true in organisations and countries alike and should be the end-goal of leaders faced with crisis.

We will emerge from this crisis stronger if we apply these lessons to our management techniques – no matter what the next crisis brings.