I was discussing the importance of crisis decision-checkpoints yesterday with a colleague and thought I'd share some of the main points here.

During simulations and real events, crisis teams always seem to lose track of one or more important issues. This is due to a number of common and well documented cognitive effects. The high workload, time constraints, fluid and ambiguous situation and other crisis conditions warp our perception, judgement and decision-making capabilities. The leader and team suffer from narrow-framing effects, increased bias, decreased cognitive abilities, and other serious but less known effects such as ethical blindness.  

In short, crisis teams usually get into a focused and automatic mode that consistently leads to errors. Crisis decision-making safeguards are used specifically for this reason and I would suggest that a short 2-3 min decision-checkpoint enforced at the end of every crisis meeting (or at set regular intervals in your day) may be a simple, quick, cheap and powerful safeguard.

In my experience, teams tend to forget or slip on 5-6 major issues, so I design my checkpoint to catch those. Those issues include: saving lives and preventing further harm; communicating quickly and regularly; getting executive approval for major decisions; preventing ethical, moral and legal deviations; and checking team sustainability for performance. 

Behavioural research clearly shows that designing decision-checkpoints into a process can effectively nudge us out of automatic mode and that 2-3 min is often enough to engage our critical thinking. So it's worth designing into our crisis management process. Of course, getting people out of automatic mode is the main objective of the checkpoint, but making sure they speak up is also important. So a good degree of psychological safety on the team is also important for this to work.

Here’s an example of how the checkpoint can be designed an applied.

Decision Checkpoints (DC):  

Rules and Process (example): 

  • DC are mandatory at the end of CMT meetings. Every CMT member is authorized to enforce this rule if the team leader forgets. Avoiding a 2-3 min pause to reflect on critical issues is deemed unacceptable by the team.

  • DC questions will be asked one at a time. This is to allow team members time to reflect on each question separately. 

  • All members are required to speak up if a DC question triggers a concern. 

  • All flagged concerns will be logged but discussed in a separate meeting. The purpose is to trigger awareness on important issues, not to bog down CMT meetings.

Checkpoint Questions (example):

  • Life/Harm/Ethics: Have we done everything we can for the affected? If not, what more can be done? 

  • Crisis Communication: Have we forgotten to inform or update anyone? Is anyone dissatisfied or upset with our level of communication at present? Think family, public, staff, management, partners, and authorities. 

  • Major Decisions: Have we taken any decisions that require approval by upper management?

  • Ethics and Laws: Are we breaking any laws in our country or in the incident country? After this is over, will people say we did the right thing? If not, why not?

  • Sustainability: Are we still an effective team or is our performance starting to drop? If so, why and what additional support do we need?

I always incorporate this into crisis plans now and cover it in induction trainings. It simply works. 

If you use similar or other types of safeguards I would love to hear about it.