Navigating a multi-stakeholders environment
Crisis management requires intellectual agility. A crisis often involves experts and decision-makers from various organizations with very different viewpoints and approaches to solve problems. Responding firefighters need to understand its many dimensions quickly to organize a manoeuvre with multiple services or agencies, while in a complex space-time and under strong media pressure. They have to take swift decisions despite a partial understanding of the situation and a lack of time.
During a crisis, the operational timeline does not always coincide with the political and media timelines, which are often more immediate. Operations use a different language, follow different rules, and might conflict with the interests of certain stakeholders. For first responders, it means avoiding confrontation while standing firm on their analysis of the situation and their proposed manoeuvre.
It is certainly a matter of balance, perception, and situational intelligence, but it is also a matter of conviction. An excellent basis for deconfliction is to know the critical thresholds and the modes of representation of all the actors involved.
However, this balancing act is complicated in major crises, during which firefighters find themselves at the intersection of several ministries, while managing the operation in the present, anticipating the next steps in the short-term, and thinking about the future manoeuvre in the long-term. The latter time horizon is vital to the success of crisis management, but may not be recognized as such by all stakeholders.
Thinking beyond check lists and plans
Except during regular situation reports, reflection must be in motion, instead of locked in preconceived patterns, mental habits and perfectly codified frames of reference. Those are often comfortable, but may lead to failure in times of crises. Proven methods and plans may suddenly become out of touch with reality. Similarly, a time-tested checklist may overlook unusual and surprising realities. In such circumstances, operations commanders must remain vigilant and recognize the dangers of comfortable solutions.
Therefore, when working at the confluence of the medias, politicians, and populations, facing a complex event, it is imperative to think without prejudice and abolish mental boundaries. This means solving the crisis at both tactical and strategic levels. In the large majority of cases, the overall objective is to restore normality as soon as possible.
Denying reality is possibly one of the main traps, especially when working with other actors who are essential to the resolution of crisis but unable to face reality as it is. Indeed, an unprecedented crisis may arise. A natural disaster or the global collapse of networks can cause effects similar to those of a weapon of mass destruction. Denial of reality prevents from any correct assessment of the situation, thus leading to an inadequate manoeuvre even when response capacities are available.
Actually, it is not all about resources or capacities, and failure may result from a mental framework unsuited to challenge. Fire brigades should aspire to envisage what seems unimaginable, in drills, and more generally in the areas of doctrine, equipment, planning, and many more. If first responders are unable to move the lines, if they deny the intelligence of their opponents, of those violent actors in the wide spectrum of terrorism, then they will suffer, not because their opponents are strong but because they are intellectually agile enough to exploit weaknesses and inconsistencies.
So let’s emphasise boldness, movement, initiative, and sometimes risk-taking. Adopting caution during preparation and reflection phases will doom to failure.
Transforming chaos into purpose
Determination and sense-making are essential because solving a crisis is creating meaning to stop the chaos. Operations commanders have to return to basics, doubt their mental frameworks, accept the inconceivable, and prepare for everything. In the middle of action, they have to analyse complexity and assess the situation with lucidity, in order to qualify the crisis and determine its key factors quickly. It means integrating reality, sometimes under high pressure, and being able to give direction and meaning to a manoeuvre.
Let’s strengthen analytical intelligence, strategic intuition, operational understanding, but also empathy and leadership, as well as intellectual courage. Let’s avoid laziness and conformism. Only then will it be possible for operations commanders to challenge themselves and consider the individuality of each crisis. Indeed crises are unique and require specific organisations, organizations that do not always emerge from the use of checklists. Crisis managers have to go back to the fundamental principles, which have often disappeared from the collection of manuals and procedures, over time. They have to remember the reason behind their actions, to go beyond the ‘how’ and explain the ‘why’.