(Re)Designing Crisis Management Around the Leader and Team


Practice and research tell us that the specific characteristics of a leader, crisis team and organization are key factors in corporate crisis management performance, perhaps even more so that the specifics of the incident itself. In my experience, it’s usually the crisis leader and team that determine the real and perceived outcome of a corporate crisis, not the incident type, severity or complexity.

So why are user-specific characteristics such as leadership style and organizational culture not factored into most crisis management (CM) designs and standards? The short answer is that “individuality” was designed out to facilitate standardization and mass-production.

That is a risky model when the eliminated component is an important success factor.

Crisis leaders and teams working under crisis conditions don’t usually adhere to templated approaches when they don’t align with, or at least accommodate, their natural style and culture. Ill-fitting procedures feel like a straitjacket under pressure and are quickly contoured or abandoned. Yet user-designed CM components (or modifications that go beyond cosmetics changes) are rare exceptions. 

The question is how damaging is this practice? How many leaders and teams will find themselves allergic to their templated plans and procedure during a crisis? In my experience, most teams are allergic to at least one or two components of every standard design, and this is enough to make them contour or disregard CM procedures on crisis day. 

Incorporating aspects of user-centered design thinking into corporate CM designs seems like a simple and logical next step. Standard templates can serve as useful blueprints for the overall process, but every step and each procedure should be carefully examined, (re)designed, and tested with and by users. Using design thinking approaches to create bespoke procedures and tools tend to be more time consuming on the front end but usually improve user-adoption, reduce training time and lead to better user performance. 

I would argue that integrating user-centered design elements is necessary given the wide range of leadership styles and organizational cultures found within crisis teams today, I would also argue that switching out the guts of a few components can be done without sacrificing any of the good bits that facilitate mass production and integration into existing emergency and crisis structures. Seems like a win-win to me.