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This week I look at what tools and techniques are available to help those leading incident teams on how to make decisions during a crisis.

This week I have spent eight hours in conference calls, working with a dedicated team to go through the suggested amendments on ISO 22361 which is going to replace prTS17091 ‘Crisis management – Guidance for developing a strategic capability’. One thing I have wanted to write about for a while is about decision making during a crisis and the applicability of decision-making models. This was inspirited by a member of the group when looking at a diagram in the old standard prTS17091 (Figure 1). They said that this was not a strategic decision-making process, as it is labelled, but a process for managing an incident during one of the process steps, a decision is already made. In this diagram the decision is made during the ‘set the direction’ phase. The point is that this is not a decision-making process but an incident management process, and this got me thinking about decision making during crises and what tools and techniques are available to help crisis managers or those leading incident teams on how to make decisions.

Figure 1 – Diagram from prTS17091

In a crisis, usually the success or the failure of the response is not made on one decision by the crisis team, and if they make any wrong decisions then the response is doomed to failure. As crises play out over time there are a series of decisions which when put together, end up with the organisation achieving success or failure, these decisions can be made at all levels within the organisation. At the operational or emergency response level it is true that life and death decisions will be taken, the decision is binary and those who made the decision will know very quickly whether the decision is successful or not. Sometimes it is those who go against training and procedures that survive and the ones who do what they are told and stick to procedures suffer. In the Piper Alpha oil rig explosion, those who leapt into the water from the rig survived, while those who stuck to the rig evacuation procedures ended up as casualties. It is also true that actions and decisions made by those at operational level or first responders can have a major impact on the response and contribute to its success or failure. A good example of this is the manager of a Philadelphia Starbucks in April 2018, who asked the police to remove two black customers when they were waiting for a friend to arrive and join them for a coffee. This led to a major crisis for Starbucks, as the incident sparked protests at their coffee shops.

Figure 2 is typical of a response during a crisis. All the teams are working on the same incident and are making a series of minor and major decisions. Sometimes an individual decision can direct the organisation towards failure, but if the sum of all the decisions over time lead the organisation towards success then ultimately the organisation will successfully manage the incident. The more decisions that point towards failure, the longer the incident will take to resolve and the greater the negative impact will be on the organisation.

Figure 2 – Decision Making During a Crisis

If we accept that there are a series of decisions made during a crisis, then we should look at whether there are tools to help us make decisions. The model which is often used by crisis managers, or that they use a ‘civilised’ version of, is the police decision-making model in Figure 3. This version is the one from the JESIP website.

This model is described on the JESIP site as ‘how to bring together the available information, reconcile potentially differing priorities and then make effective decisions together’. This model, like the model in Figure 1 is an incident management process, rather than a decision-making process as it is billed. Going through the process will help gather information and shape the decision making and best use of all the intelligence developed. However, it doesn’t really help us to make the decision or give us a criterion on which to make the decision.

Figure 3 – Joint Decision Model from JESIP website

When exploring crisis management processes, I have yet to see a tool which can help crisis management teams make decisions. Tools such as the Joint Decision Model from JESIP (Figure 3) can help you refine the options you have during an incident, but it doesn’t actually help you take the decision. I am not sure whether there is a tool or whether through following a good process this might help make the decision obvious, or whether it is down to the quality of the leader. Maybe more experienced leaders make better decisions, or could it, in many instances, be down to luck? Perhaps we should follow the quote which is attributed to Napoleon, but was actually said by Cardinal Mazarin, chief minister of France, 1642-61, the question to ask of a general is not, ‘Est-il habile?’ Is he skilful? but ‘Est-il heureux?’ Is he lucky?

There is plenty of literature on decision making, but I have not seen this applied specifically to the decision needing to be made during incidents. Perhaps we have to make do with a good incident process and hope the good decisions will flow from them?

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