Companies & Industries

Crisis Response Factors—Without a Crisis


Disasters cause people and organizations to step up to new levels of performance. But why wait for a disaster?

Posted on Harvard Business Review: February 8, 2010 11:23 AM

While the earthquake in Haiti has brought indescribable devastation and horror, it has also reminded us of the incredible ability and willingness of individuals and organizations to respond to a crisis. What is it about a crisis that causes people and organizations to step up to new levels of performance?

Having looked at crisis situations for many years, there are three factors that are always present in the human response to them: Urgency, empathy, and innovation. Urgency is the realization that time matters—that there are clear goals and even clearer consequences if they are not achieved quickly. Empathy is the identification that people feel with the crisis, the sense that we are connected and that one day we could be in the same situation and would want others to help us too. Innovation, of course, is the freedom to respond in ways that are out of the ordinary, that don't get caught up in red tape, approvals, and complex decision-making.

Whenever these three factors are present, individuals and organizations tend to raise their game—as we are seeing with Haiti and as we've seen in past natural disasters. But when the crisis passes, these three factors also fade. We're already seeing bickering among state and federal agencies in the U.S. about who is going to pay for airlifts and medical support; red tape reappearing in regard to orphan adoption; and a general waning of interest on the part of the general public. Eventually, the focus on Haiti will go back to "normal" even though the needs of the country and its people will still be far beyond ordinary.

You have probably seen similar responses to crises in your organization, even though the scale and cost may be vastly different than the sort of massive humanitarian challenge that happens after a natural disaster.

One of the lessons from these crisis situations is the power of the three human response factors to get things done quickly. The challenge is to take advantage of them without waiting for a crisis. To do this, managers can design work that has some of the same characteristics as a crisis—but without the crisis. For example, Northshore LIJ hospital increased utilization of operating rooms by challenging teams to improve in a short period of time, which triggered ideas and actions for innovative scheduling, patient transport, and materials management processes. ConEd reduced drips and spills in a power plant by organizing a "model month" where everyone got behind a zero-spill goal. And the World Bank helped farmers in Nicaragua increase their output of "clean milk" by setting 100-day goals that motivated them to try new approaches.

A second lesson, however, is that managers need to find ways of sustaining urgency, empathy, and innovation if they want to expand and scale their improvements. It's easy for people to go back to "normal" when a challenge is over and an initial result achieved. The hard work for managers is to build on short-term successes after people have achieved them.

Imagine how much better organizations could perform if managers could learn how to systematically tap into these reserves without waiting for a crisis, and then sustain the results. And imagine how much better prepared for all kinds of crises we would be if we greeted the more everyday challenges—not just the major crises—with urgency, empathy, and innovation.

Have you seen examples of these hidden reserves in your organization? Have you been able to build on them for the longer-term?

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