Business Continuity – Keys to Effective Communication, Rapid Response, and Leadership During a Crisis

So, the time has come. The crisis has materialized, and you are now in the thick of managing it. Hopefully, you took our previous advice on business continuity planning and have developed a prioritized list of actions, clear objectives, and a well-trained team. So, now what? It’s time to communicate, revise plans, and lead!

Communicate. During times of crisis, people hunger for information and a vision for how to respond. They want to know how to interpret what happened, what is happening, and what will happen. Wishing for answers to these questions is just as true for teams of three to four as it is for nations. You will likely have to alter your original plan to evolving circumstances, but do not abandon this critical objective. As your communication plan unfolds, consider the following:

Audience. Every message will leave an impression. Who is it that you are trying to reach? Your words will guide how people choose to respond. Know what actions you wish to inspire before you communicate. Recognize this and consider the information needs of all those parties

Pathway. No matter your role, know that your communication plan should not merely be a one-way conduit for you to push information out. Hearing bottom-up messages is equally, if not more important. We communicate because we need group action. We need others to buy-in and cooperate. If leaders and organizations do not hear the concerns and questions of those whom they lead, they will misjudge the reality of the situation and miss an opportunity to gain greater insight and ideas from others.

Message. Communication goes beyond your word choice. How we convey our message means more than what we say. Are you confident? Are you sincere? Are you compassionate? Tone matters. Humans are experts at reading between the lines and using their System 1, tools of intuition. Make sure that your body language, gestures, and actions under the lights match the message you wish to convey.

Routine. Habitual patterns of behavior provide predictability and a sense of normalcy. You must establish regular times and forums for communication. These updates help others plan their lives, and they will adjust their understanding and actions accordingly. Do not let others down by not preparing for and executing these updates with precision.

Rapid Response. The cliché goes that the most important part of developing a plan is the process, not the product, right? Well, now you might be seeing that. I have found that too often, leaders during times of crisis put down their standard operating manuals and guidebooks and play a game of pick-up management. Rapid response requires rapid planning. We know a lot of previous plans might be set aside or require updating, therefore, I offer the following ideas as some simple ways to maximize the work your team did while remaining agile to your unique circumstances.

Review and reuse. First, take a moment to have everyone collect themselves and review whatever list of business continuity to-dos and checklists are sitting on dusty shelves or in dated folders in the cloud. Organizations that provide critical security, safety, and health services should have the most up to date guides, but maybe your organization does not. That’s OK., because even the best rehearsed will likely benefit from a quick review and then variation. Do not waste time re-inventing wheels. Take what you have and elaborate. Theme and variation!

Out with the old and in with the good. Recognize early on that you will need to update your plans. Quickly establish a new plan to plan. Rapid planning and response will determine your overall success. Take what still works in your old response plan and update it quickly to focus on the following:

  1. What happened. Now that you have details of what broke, what’s limited, who needs what, you can drive to new goals. Create new priorities and lines of effort to accomplish objectives with specific outcomes delineated. A common operating picture can help everyone visualize the current state and guide response plans.
  2. What’s happening. Based on what happened, its time to lay out new plans for how to drive to your new specified objectives. Flexible responses that take into consideration impacted team members must be realistic. Use your common operating picture to track progress.
  3. What will happen? These new plans must take what happened and is happening and think through all the next steps of what will happen. Yes, there is a need to think about how we keep things up and running, but you must also really think through the decision-points that will guide a return to normalcy, or a new normal. Lay out phases and thresholds for returns to business as usual. Build those in your common operating picture.

Good enough is good enough. The time to make plans perfect is gone. You know that, but the urge to drive into the minutia may distract you or your teams. Settle on 80% solutions that get it right most of the time. Your job is to execute as much good as you can in the least amount of time as is feasible.

Leadership. Lastly, during times of crisis, it is not enough to communicate and plan, you and your organization must act. Effective collective action demands effective leadership. Crises reveal who the exceptional leaders are and expose the weak-spirited, inept, and morally corrupt.

Leaders eat last. During a deployment, I served with a leader who refused to ride in new up-armored vehicles until all of his front-line troops had received these safer vehicles. I also served with another, who demanded up-armored vehicles as soon as they arrived in-country and would not leave the forward operating base until he had one. Placing your personal concerns before others sends a strong message and reveals character weakness. Yes, preserving leaders is critical for business continuity. However, if you get paid the big bucks, realize that pay is not an entitlement, but a call for you to make the greater sacrifice when needed.

Quiet confidence. Your team needs good judgment, sound reasoning, and effective communication, not grandstanding or hyperbolics. How you conduct yourself when pressure mounts and the bad news starts rolling in will establish your organization’s tone. Yelling, cursing, losing your cool only reveals a lack of discipline and inability to control oneself. Some circumstances call for stern admonition, forceful prose, and inspired speech. Recognize that your team will amplify your tone – so convey confidence and calm. The team needs that from you now more than ever.

Your team owns the wins you own the losses. Nothing sinks the collective morale of an organization more than its leader claiming victories for him or herself and pointing fingers at the team for losses. If the organization succeeds, undoubtedly it is because real workers did real work. Others stepped up. Acknowledge that and applaud their sacrifices. If things get shaky, or if problems arise, recognize that whatever level of responsibility you hold, you will be accountable to that level. So, own it. Accept the problem, apologize if necessary, then get back after it. Take care of your people and they will take care of you.

Hope and Inspiration. Cheerleaders and those that sugarcoat the bad come across as naïve, uninformed, or at worse deceitful. Your team, and those people your organization support, want to know that despite what happened and the ongoing challenges, that everything will be OK. They want reassurance that your team has a plan, the right resources, and the right people to accomplish the mission. They want hope. Do not paint rose-tinted visions. They will smell the manure. You give confidence in your actions more than your words. So, be the kind of leader your team and customers need.

Closing Thoughts. No matter how bad things get, this too shall pass. If you are planning for a crisis, or currently in one, understand that things may get worse before they get better, but they will get better. Your job in providing business continuity of operations is to ensure that critical services continue for the good of others whether you are in government or private industry. Your work matters, so thanks for taking it seriously!

As always – the views in this piece are mine alone and do not represent the U.S. government, Department of Defense, United States Army, or any other organization with which I have had any association.

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