Your crisis response plan: the ten effective elements

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Your Crisis Response Plan: The Ten Effective Elements
|Published: |September 30, 2002 |
|Author: |Michael Watkins |

Executive Summary:

Shooter on site. Epidemic. Major power outage. Is your organization prepared to deal with crisis? HBS professorMichael Watkins explains what you need to know, and offers a checklist to evaluate your preparedness.
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Organizations inevitably face crises, but few are well prepared to deal with them. The following elements summarize the findings of research and experience about what it takes to respond effectively in crisis situations. The accompanying table is a tool forevaluating the adequacy of your organization's crisis response plans.

Effective crisis response plans include the following ten elements:

1. A representative set of planning scenarios. It's essential to create a set of crisis scenarios that serve to guide planning. This need not be an exhaustive list of everything that could happen, but it should represent a broad range of potential emergencysituations that the organization could plausibly face. Examples include: shooter on site, epidemic, bomb threat, major fire, major external terrorist attack, major economic dislocation, infrastructure failure (power grid outage coupled with extreme heat, loss of the Web or telephone lines, disruption in the water supply).

2. A flexible set of response modules. Leaders should be able to pullcombinations of pre-set response "modules" off the shelf. Modularizing the elements of a crisis response plan provides the organization with flexibility to deal with unexpected scenarios or combinations of scenarios. This is important because real crises rarely directly match planning scenarios. If response options aren't flexible and modularized, novel events or combinations of events can yield ineffectiveor "brittle" responses. Response modules might include: facility lockdown, police or fire response, evacuation, isolation (preventing people from entering facilities), medical containment (response to significant epidemic), grief management, as well as external communication to media and other external constituencies.

3. A plan that matches response modules to scenarios. This is the core planthat links each of the planning scenarios to the response modules that will be immediately activated. For example, a "shooter on site" event triggers an immediate facility lockdown plus a police response plus preset communication protocols to convene the crisis-response team and warn staff.

Leaders should be able to pull combinations of pre-set response "modules"off the shelf. 
— MichaelWatkins
4. A designated chain of command. One finding of research on crisis response is that decentralized organizations, which are so good at helping promote innovation in normal times, prove to be woefully inadequate in times of crisis. Crisis demands a rapid centralized response and this, in turn, requires a very clear line of command and the ability to shift into what the military term "warfighting mode" rapidly. Otherwise the organization responds incoherently. This means creating a centralized parallel organization, in which the leader has a designated deputy and they, too, have a backup who would take command if the others were unavailable or disabled. It also means having a core crisis response team of perhaps five or six people who function as the leader's staff in the parallelcrisis-management organization.

5. Preset activation protocols. Preset signals for activating and coordinating the various response modules in the event of a crisis situation. There have to be clear triggers to move the organization from "normal" to "war-fighting" mode as well as to activate specific response modules. There also have to be "all clear" signals that shift the organization back to...
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