KITH Wed, 20 Mar 2019 17:01:08 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Crisis simulations as planning tools Mon, 18 Mar 2019 21:28:04 +0000 Critical takeaways Simulations are the most valuable planning and preparedness tool available to an organization and should be a routine part of every company’s training regimen. We are now investigating how to use simulations as planning tools to help organizations develop contingency plans and scenarios for future challenges. Outlined here are four principles to help […]

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Critical takeaways
  • Simulations are the most valuable planning and preparedness tool available to an organization and should be a routine part of every company’s training regimen.
  • We are now investigating how to use simulations as planning tools to help organizations develop contingency plans and scenarios for future challenges.
  • Outlined here are four principles to help you plan and deliver a simulation as a scenario-planning tool.


As I’ve written repeatedly, we at Kith are firm believers in the value of crisis simulations as a way to improve organizational performance in the event of a crisis. We believe that simulations help develop preparedness in multiple ways. For example, a well-run simulation will:  

  • Identify gaps in your planning process and organizational preparedness.
  • Help you understand the skill sets and expertise of individuals and teams.
  • Create an opportunity for newer / junior members of your team to learn as they participate alongside more experienced team members.
  • Develop corporate ‘muscle memory’ allowing you to react more quickly and decisively in a critical moment.
  • Improve the ability of individuals and teams to overcome fear and shellshock.
  • Help you understand relationships and develop alignment between teams, e.g. communications and legal.


Time and time again, we have seen the tangible benefits of simulations when a crisis strikes and there is a marked difference between teams who have practiced and those who have not. There’s no doubt in my mind that a well-crafted simulation is the most valuable preparation tool that an organization can employ.

However, there’s one new benefit we are starting to explore and that’s the use of simulations as a long-term planning tool.

This was prompted by a recent request from a financial services client who wanted to expand the scope of a typical crisis simulation. They want to use lessons from the simulation as part of a long-term planning exercise they’re conducting in case of an economic downturn. In addition to the general improvements to preparedness I listed above, we identified three benefits that a simulation would bring to their planning.  

Firstly, they would be able to see where their teams may have knowledge or skills gaps that relate to this specific scenario so they can work to plug those. Secondly, they could stress-test their existing contingency plans and scenario-specific strategies. Thirdly, they could evaluate how their response to a downturn could be used as a comparative advantage relative to competitors.

This was an innovative idea and it really got us thinking. The more we thought about it, the more potential we saw but we also realized that using a simulation for planning, as opposed to just preparation, requires some adjustments.

I’d like to share some key differences we identified to assist if you plan to use a simulation in this way.


Focus on long-term planning, not short-term reactions

Unlike typical crisis simulations, which usually deal with an acute issue requiring a quick response, a planning simulation needs to address a longer timescale.  So you need to build a simulation that covers a timescale of weeks or months rather than just focusing on the reaction in the hours or days after the event. Allow the participants to consider a set of issues, plan how they will respond and initiate the response as normal but then, instead of playing things out in real time, jump ahead a day or two. Provide realistic updates of how their actions were received and deliver an updated set of challenges. This will allow you to cover a reasonable timescale for the management of a chronic crisis in a short amount of time. This also allows the participants to consider the longer-term, second and third-level effects of how they might respond which will be vital for effective planning.

However, you need to stay at the strategic-level for this kind of simulation to work and keep an ‘infinite’ mindset.

This requires careful participant management and willing suspension of disbelief in order to be successful: someone will always want to relitigate the last session or jump into the tactics.  There’s also not as much of a clear start and end to the scenario which can be difficult for some participants. Ensure that you warn all participants in advance that this is a different style of simulation. Remind them that the goal is to plan for a more chronic, long-term issue, not just practice the immediate response to a crisis.


Get senior leadership buy-in

These simulations are wholly strategic so you need to get the highest levels of the organization involved, up to and including Board Members. Because of the involvement of all senior leadership, the simulation needs to be wholly credible as a scenario and well run as an exercise.  We all are mindful of the collective eye roll from senior leaders when they are confronted with another ‘milquetoast’ exercise around what could happen in some hypothetical construct.

Therefore, make sure that you build something robust and challenging that’s going to be worthy of their time and make them think. Use analogous historical events, the experience of competitors and what you can learn from academia to build a credible, realistic scenario to maximize the benefit they derive from the exercise. This will keep your senior leaders engaged and will also bolster your credibility as someone who ‘gets’ strategic planning and as a confident, trusted counselor.


Ensure that actions have consequences

All too often we see a poorly run scenario where we hear the following. “Yeah, so we fix that” or “we issue a statement to deal with that” and the problem miraculously fades away.

This never happens in reality.

In reality, the response never goes according to plan and no matter how good your statement, someone will react negatively to it.  Actions have consequences in real life so they must also have consequences in training. Otherwise, you are reinforcing false lessons which will erode crisis preparedness.  Moreover, by not challenging the participants you won’t be able to identify the skills gaps to close or the dynamic challenges that an ever-changing marketplace would create.

So include additional inputs to simulate things going wrong. Maybe the CEO doesn’t make it to the studio in time for her big ‘mea culpa’ interview.  Or the recall gets botched. What if your competitors start running ads against you?  This might seem tough on the participants but this will result in a much more realistic set of circumstances to help their planning.


Play as the opposition

In foreign affairs discussions or military planning you will often hear people say “the enemy also gets a vote” as a reminder that, no matter how good your plan might be, there are other factors at play.  This is going to be the same in planning for a strategic crisis in your organization. The success of your plans will often be directly related to what your competitors may be doing. This means that you need to have someone play the ‘opposition’ as an active element in the simulation.  Their role is to create additional challenges to reflect the kind of actions competitors will be taking and to play out how third-parties will react to what the participants do.

For example, we might include some very proactive, very aggressive competitors or have a new rival firm appear on the scene to take advantage of the situation.  This adds realism but also forces the team being trained to ask, “Could we respond to this? Or “what would we do in this situation?“.


Graduate level simulations for graduate level problems

The goal of all crisis simulations is to identify problems before you’re actually in the middle of the situation. This can be preparing contingency plans or plugging skills gaps that the simulation has revealed.  However, using simulations for planning takes this to the next level. This allows you to challenge your senior leaders to address the most difficult problems that they might face in a crisis and to develop appropriate contingency plans. These simulations are significantly more difficult than a ‘routine’ exercise – which should still be challenging – but only this style of simulation will let you tackle the biggest problems.  

So the next time you are thinking about long-term strategic planning, consider using a simulation as a planning tool. I think you’ll be pleased with the outcome and these will definitely be a key part of Kith’s toolkit going forward.


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Overcoming shell shock in a crisis Fri, 08 Mar 2019 17:27:27 +0000 Critical takeaways ‘Shell shock’ is the effect of trauma on individuals leading to paralysis and an inability to think and act effectively. We see similar results in boardrooms where a crisis causes the company to freeze.
 Our formula for crisis success – Core Values + Chain Of Command = Speed – can help overcome boardroom […]

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Critical takeaways
  • ‘Shell shock’ is the effect of trauma on individuals leading to paralysis and an inability to think and act effectively. We see similar results in boardrooms where a crisis causes the company to freeze.

  • Our formula for crisis success – Core Values + Chain Of Command = Speed – can help overcome boardroom shell shock 

  • Stick to your values, chart a course to success with a 90-day plan and use the support of your board and allies to break out of this paralysis and overcome boardroom shell shock.


Breakdown: The Crisis of Shell Shock on the Somme is a poignant book by Taylor Downing recounting the tragedies of World War I and the effects on those fighting in France at that time. One memorable section stood out to me as Downing explained the condition that was beginning to be called ‘shell shock’. He described the effects on soldiers:

“paralysis, stuttering and the shakes, the inability to walk or stand temporary blindness or deafness.”

This was the first time that the condition was recognized as an effect of the trauma of trench warfare which was a revolutionary concept. Previously what we now call post-traumatic stress (PTS) was often dismissed as cowardice and could lead to the firing squad. Since then, our understanding of the mental and physical effects of trauma have advanced and PTS is now a well-understood and manageable condition.

But the phrase ‘shell shocked’ stood out to me because of the stark image it brought to mind: someone with a 1000-yard stare, in shock and unable to react effectively. It also describes how some clients appear when hit by a crisis for the first time or find themselves in the middle of an unexpected situation. They sometimes appear the same: they appear shell shocked.


Boardroom shell shock

I’m not saying that the stress of a corporate crisis matches the significant impacts of war. Nonetheless, crises are highly stressful events and significantly more traumatic than day-to-day corporate life. The result can be a team that is unsure of what to do next and paralyzed. They don’t speak clearly or definitively about the path forward and may even have a kind temporary blindness or deafness to the situation they are in. Essentially, they are shell shocked.

We’re currently engaged with a client that was suffering from this type of shell shock. A group of disgruntled employees made serious allegations against the organization which led to scathing commentary in traditional and social media. Despite this negative coverage – and everything pointing to this being a critical moment – they were advised to do nothing and they decided not to engage.

While I agree that you don’t need to over-index for every post on social media, the advice to wait for things to blow over went too far in the opposite direction. Even though they had a good story to tell, they did nothing to respond to the situation which resulted in more critical, higher-profile media coverage. Eventually, the situation overwhelmed them and, by the time we were invited in to assist, the team was paralyzed, indecisive and ineffective.  

So, even though they had a good story to tell, a competent team and an affirmative path forward, they were unable to react. They were shell shocked.

Before I go any farther, I need to note that it’s normal for us to shut down to an extent in times of stress and trauma. Everyone’s response and threshold will be different and some may recover within minutes where others might take significantly longer but we will all be affected somehow. However, similar to being able to overcome fear, we need a way to overcome shell shock if we want to manage a crisis successfully.


Moving forward

Even though everyone’s response to the stress of a crisis will be different, there are some relatively simple steps that will help overcome boardroom shell shock.  I’ve outlined these below in detail but everything relates back to our equation for crisis success: Core Values + Chain Of Command = Speed.

equation for crisis success

Start with your core values

First, refer back to your core values so you are clear about your intent and to make sure you just do what is right. If there is a problem, you need to fix it. If there’s a misunderstanding, you need to explain it. If you need to say sorry, say it clearly and unequivocally.

Your values also give you a clear idea of where you want to end up and this will help inform your decision-making. Having a destination in mind – a clear endpoint – will help you move beyond the paralysis you will be feeling. So when you are feeling overwhelmed and unsure of what to do, use your values as a guide.


Make and stick to a plan

Secondly, you need to break the journey to your endpoint down into a clear 90-day plan. This 90-day plan will detail the steps that you’re going to take to get out of trouble and breaks an otherwise daunting task – solve the crisis – into much smaller, achievable steps. Once you have the plan, follow Nike’s advice and ‘just do it’: get onto the path out of trouble and stick to it. Starting to respond and becoming active participants in the crisis will pull your team out of their shell shocked condition.

Be prepared for distractions, detours, and roadblocks along the way, however. There might be Congressional hearings and Congressional oversight. There could be visits by legislators. There might be an investigation and there will be subsequent media inquiry. However, get back on track whatever else gets thrown at you because your organization,  employees, supporters, and friends are also using this plan as their roadmap to success.



Focus on results

One side-effect of shell shock can be a tendency to regress. In its most extreme form, regression can result in childlike behavior because the brain is trying to recreate a safe, comfortable state. This isn’t what we normally see in a corporate crisis but there can be a tendency to engage in familiar, comfortable tasks because these also provide comfort in times of stress. However, this can be at the expense of ‘grasping the nettle’ and actually engaging with the crisis itself.  The busy work gives an illusion of progress but nothing is being done to solve the problem.

However, I’m also a big proponent of getting back to business as usual which does mean you have to get back to these routine tasks at some point. This means that it can be difficult to tell if someone is doing more menial, routine tasks as part of the return to normality or as a way to avoid engaging with the crisis.  The simple test I apply is:

  1. Is this task appropriate for this person’s seniority?
  2. Is what this person is doing generating a positive result that aligns with our goals?

Assuming that they are the right person for the job, and engaged in something that helps with the response, then you should be OK.  If not, it might be a case of shell-shock causing them to regress: they are engaged in busy work as a form of reality avoidance. Staying busy is a positive thing but just make sure it counts.


Involve your board

As CEO, you should have a close, supportive relationship with your board, built on mutual trust and respect. (And if not, make sure you aren’t the weakest link in the response.) This is the time that you need this support because they are probably the only people with whom you can be completely open. So be honest with them to ensure that they are crystal clear on your path forward and the challenges that lie ahead. They should be able to give you good, honest feedback and a really good sense of what’s possible. This also requires you to be open about the challenges and difficulties you are facing yourself. Remember, many of them will have been in your shoes so they will be empathetic and supportive but will only know how to help if you ask.

You should also engage outside advisor or counsel, someone who is not beholden to your conclusions or part of your shared history. Independent advice will provide a sounding board for your decisions, help you chart a path out of the crisis and keep you focussed on moving forward.


Involve your friends

Lastly, it’s critical that you find and recruit allies and friends to help. Find the donors, board members or key customers that have been with you longest and understand where you are right now. They can give you the support, guidance, and feedback you need to help you break out of shell shock and move forward.


An acute condition, not a chronic condition

Companies that find themselves in shell shock are paralyzed and don’t know what to do next, no matter how competent their team or compelling their story. We thrive in that space and love helping clients break out of this state, to help them understand what is possible and what to do next. The key thing is that they understand that they can do something to get out of this situation because corporate shell shock is usually temporary. Once you recognize it and start to break out, you can move forward relatively quickly.

But you must be proactive. You have to create the momentum necessary to see your way through this crisis situation. So stick to your values, chart a course to success and start executing on your 90-day plan with the support of your board and allies. That way you can overcome your shell shock, not become trapped by it.


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Black Box Theory Tue, 26 Feb 2019 15:27:31 +0000 Critical Takeaways It is easy to attribute crisis success as simply being lucky when in fact companies have earned this ‘luck’ through hard work and preparedness. A concept in sailing is that of a ‘black box’ into which a Captain deposits ‘points’. They can then draw on these points to give them a little bit […]

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Critical Takeaways
  • It is easy to attribute crisis success as simply being lucky when in fact companies have earned this ‘luck’ through hard work and preparedness.
  • A concept in sailing is that of a ‘black box’ into which a Captain deposits ‘points’. They can then draw on these points to give them a little bit of extra luck in tough times.
  • Companies can build up their own black box ‘credit’ by preparing thoroughly prior to a crisis. These points will earn you a little extra luck in a crisis but this is based on your hard work up front.

Well prepared or just lucky?

Previously, I wrote about “Patagonia envy”: how simply copying a successful corporation’s path won’t result in your own high reputation. Instead, you need to do what’s appropriate for your firm and put in the hard work required. Not long afterward I identified another kind of envy that occurs and, similarly, one that overlooks the need for hard work.

This time, it’s envying companies who seem lucky. Like “Patagonia envy”, not understanding how companies create their own ‘luck’ will interfere with your crisis response.

There are some companies that just seemed to get crisis response right and Home Depot is a great example. Their crisis managers have been in place for several years and, although I wouldn’t say they’ve seen it all, they’ve certainly seen a great deal. They are well prepared, have good systems and procedures in place and always act quickly and decisively developing the necessary speed of trust required in the face of crisis. Their success can seem effortless but this apparent ease masks a lot of hard work, effort and years dedicated to honing their abilities.

However, instead of recognizing that this success is based on hard work and effort, people can start to think that these firms are just lucky. The perception is that they ‘dodged a bullet’ rather than anticipated what was approaching and were ready for it. So there’s a lot there to admire and learn from successful companies like Home Depot but we need to avoid dismissing their success as simply being lucky.

However, I do believe that there’s a degree of luck involved. But it’s not the kind you might be thinking of.

Instead, this luck is earned through what’s called the ‘black box’ theory.

The Black Box

As you know, I love to draw parallels from the world of sailing and what we do in crisis and reputation management. The black box theory comes from an article by John Vigor which suggests that every seagoing vessel has an imaginary black box into which the Captain deposits ‘chits’ or points. This black box then acts as a kind of bank account that the Captain can draw on when there’s an emergency.

The points from your black box help you buy your way out of trouble but there’s one catch.

The Captain has no control over how the points are spent or when these are withdrawn. They also don’t know how many points are in the black box.

However, they have complete control over how the points get into the box: they earn them. Every little thing that captain does onboard to protect the crew, keep the vessel in good shape and to anticipate problems adds a point to the black box.

Look into that nagging little noise that you hear from the engine instead of ignoring it? Add a point. Fix a small rip in a sail rather than leaving it for another day? Get a point. Spend some time reviewing the chart and tide tables for tomorrow’s trip instead of enjoying a beer and watching the sunset. Get a point. (Some points are harder to earn than others….)

Over time, these points build up in your black box allowing you to buy your way out of trouble when it comes. You don’t have control over how or when these points will come into play but you know that they’re there and that in itself is an advantage.

And my belief is that companies that get crisis response right have their own black box. Instead of being plain lucky, that luck was earned by paying into the black box, typically over a long period of time. They’ve been paying attention to the little things that could slip them up and they’ve been taking care of the ‘nice to have’ items, not just the basics.

Adding points to your black box

You can see this in practice with companies like Home Depot. They have significant situational awareness systems set up but, instead of just using these when a crisis hits, they are always monitoring what’s going on. That way, they can evaluate incoming signals from social media and maintain good organizational communication between operations, manufacturing, and communications at all times. This continual monitoring and communications earns a point.

Similarly, they have a crystal-clear chain of command, know who needs to be in the room in order to make decisions and have robust processes and procedures. But they have also looked at how the delegation of authority between individuals and teams works and when things need to be escalated. This ‘next level’ thinking adds another point to their black box.

They also run crisis simulations, training and planning regularly. These range from sessions as simple as debriefing about a situation that impacted a competitor and asking ‘what if that were us?’ to full-spectrum simulations involving all parties and agencies. Each of these develops their skill base, expands their library of pattern recognition templates and, you’ve guessed it, adds a point to their black box.

So the black box theory isn’t a set of hard and fast rules of what adds points to your box or how many points an activity is worth. Rather, it is following your conscience and thinking ‘what could I be doing to prepare?’, rather than just asking ‘what’s the minimum preparation I can get away with?’

Ask yourself, how can you go above and beyond the basics to start adding those extra points to your black box.

Remember, it’s impossible to know the exact balance in your black box, but you’ll certainly know that it’s empty if you haven’t added any points. So give yourself that extra edge and keep adding points by going that extra mile.

Well prepared and lucky

As with storms at sea, a company can’t hope to avoid every critical moment that could impact its long-term reputation. Sometimes a storm arrives unexpectedly and you have to respond for the safety of your boat and your crew. If you have only done the bare minimum to prepare, you will have an empty black box and there’s no overdraft facility.

Instead, you need to be adding points constantly. Putting your experience into practice, identifying ways to mitigate risks, conduct preventive maintenance, and think about ways that you and your team can be faster and have better alignment across the whole organization.

If you have prepared and gone that extra mile, you can cash in those points from the black box and buy yourself a little bit of extra luck when you need it most. But remember, it’s not just any old luck, it’s luck you’ve earned.


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The Risk of Patagonia Envy Thu, 21 Feb 2019 15:15:27 +0000 Critical takeaways When asked about “high reputation” firms, one that always comes to mind is the outdoor retailer Patagonia which has a very high reputation due to its commitment and authenticity to its mission. You can learn a lot from Patagonia but don’t just copy their approach: a good reputation is based on being authentic […]

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Critical takeaways
  • When asked about “high reputation” firms, one that always comes to mind is the outdoor retailer Patagonia which has a very high reputation due to its commitment and authenticity to its mission.
  • You can learn a lot from Patagonia but don’t just copy their approach: a good reputation is based on being authentic to your own beliefs.
  • There are several objective, data-driven rankings of corporate reputation but I also like to take a subjective view of what makes for a high reputation.

“Who do you think is a high-reputation firm, Bill?”

Clients and friends often ask who I consider to be “high reputation firms”. I usually refer to the work of the Reputation Institute and their RepTrack ranking. These ranking are well-established and are featured in Forbes magazine annually, listing the high reputation firms in the US and Globally. Companies like Rolex, Lego and Google top this list and are obviously firms with excellent reputations.

I have no disagreement with using these companies as examples of high reputation firms but I also have my own, more informal approach. I think that this more subjective view of reputation is particularly helpful when you notice firms like Campbell’s Soup and Apple land relatively far down the RepTrack index. This can seem incongruous (I mean, who has a poor opinion of Campbell’s soup?) especially when popular firms like Starbucks don’t even appear in top 99.

So when I’m asked which firm I consider to be “high reputation”, I also like to list a few other firms who might not appear so highly in the US segment of the RepTrack index, companies like Campbell’s, Starbucks and BMW.

But the company I talk about most is outdoor retailer Patagonia.

Patagonia = authenticity

Patagonia specializes in high-end outdoor gear, starting in back 1972 when the founder, Yves Chouinard, and other climbers couldn’t find reliable climbing hardware.  Chouinard started blacksmithing his own and, over 45 years later, the company is a mainstay of the outdoors apparel sector.  

But Patagonia is equally well known for its commitment to environmental and social causes and I believe that this authenticity lies at the heart of its perceived high reputation. Chouinard explained how this environmental commitment transpired and I think the last sentence is the most important (highlighting mine).

At first we were all interested in making the best products … then as we got concerned about the state of the planet, we added on “cause no unnecessary harm.” And as we got more depressed and concerned [we started] influencing other companies to use our business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis. That’s what I really think about: Leading by example, not just talking about what we’re doing.”

                  Yves Chouinard in ‘Don of the Dirtbags’ The Usual Montauk Magazine, 2016

One example of leading by example is their tool called ‘The Footprint Chronicles’ which I cited in my book as an excellent example of transparency.  The tool allows you to track and follow the manufacturing process for individual garments all the way back to where raw materials were sourced. Patagonia also co-founded the ‘1% for the Planet’ initiative (1% of sales income goes to environmental causes) and they have recently been at the forefront of campaigns to protect public land in the US.

However, unlike other firms which separate activism from business, Patagonia gives these social and environmental causes equal billing alongside sales and marketing.  So their ads are just as likely to be a call to action to protect the environment as a product story. This mix of social activism and savvy business acumen was recognized by Fast Company Magazine which ranked them #1 in the ‘Social Good’ category of their 2018 list of Most Innovative Companies.

And this commitment to social and environmental issues doesn’t seem to hurt their bottom line: Patagonia is now a multi-billion dollar company. For them, mixing business and activism is both smart and profitable.

But most of all, it’s authentic.

Patagonia lives what they believe in and their values permeate everything they do and how they do it.  For me, it’s this authenticity that is the key to their success and high reputation.

I believe that there’s a lot we can learn from this example but first, an important point. You can learn a lot from Patagonia and applying their lessons to your own business will help you develop a high reputation. But your business is unique so you need to avoid succumbing to “Patagonia Envy”.   

You aren’t Patagonia

”Patagonia Envy” can be a challenge for the rest of: we think that being just like them is a shortcut to our own great reputation. But firms like Patagonia didn’t get the ‘halo’ that they’ve achieved without hard work and making sacrifices. Patagonia has a long track record of doing the right things for the right reasons for their business, their employees, customers, and the planet.

They tell this story in great detail in their book The Responsible Company, What We’ve Learned From Patagonia In The First 40 Years which lays out the lessons for anyone to see. But this is Patagonia’s story and, even though it describes the path that they took to success, it isn’t a roadmap that every company can follow.  

Your company’s road to success will look different from theirs and trying to follow them exactly is simply “Patagonia Envy”. Instead, the true lesson to learn from Patagonia is the need to be authentic.

They are authentic to who they are, their beliefs and values. That’s what underpins their success.

Similarly, it’s vital for your company to remain true to its core beliefs and values as it builds its reputation. This ties back to the first of the four A’s from our book: awareness. (The other three are assessment, authority and action in case you were curious.)

Know and be yourself

Awareness includes being self-aware: knowing who you are, understanding what you believe in and being clear about what you can and can’t do. You also have to define your mission and your values and explain what you stand for. Articulate this and be absolutely clear because this ‘awareness’ is the foundation for everything else your company is going to, through the good times and the bad.

Then you can start to build your reputation as a reflection of your behavior which in turn is a reflection of your beliefs. This honesty and authenticity, coupled with hard work and sacrifice, are what will allow you to earn your own halo.

But we can’t claim that halo unless we’ve done the hard work. And we certainly can’t just copy what’s in the Responsible Company because we feelPatagonia Envy”.

Don’t be envious, be authentic

So while using Patagonia as a benchmark is incredibly valuable, don’t have “Patagonia Envy”. Your company can’t grab their halo by simply copying what they do and you won’t succeed without making the kind of sacrifices that they had to in order to get where they are today.

Instead, learn what you can for your own company from Patagonia’s example but be authentic to your beliefs and values.  That authenticity is how you forge your own path to a high reputation and business success.


Header image source:

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Noah and Augustine: a crisis history lesson Fri, 15 Feb 2019 18:11:12 +0000 Critical takeaways The story of Noah’s Ark reminds us of the need to actually take action in response to risk. This story is quoted in a 1995 HBR article by Norm Augustine who lays out six points for crisis success based on his experiences in government and business. Despite the article’s age, Augustine’s six points […]

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Critical takeaways
  • The story of Noah’s Ark reminds us of the need to actually take action in response to risk.
  • This story is quoted in a 1995 HBR article by Norm Augustine who lays out six points for crisis success based on his experiences in government and business.
  • Despite the article’s age, Augustine’s six points are still highly relevant to crisis success and you should put these into practice in your own business.

Noah’s Ark

One of the joys I have while creating content for Kith is that I often don’t know where inspiration is going to come from.

This time it was an email from my daughter, Sylvia.

She’s studying disaster management and she recently shared a paragraph from one of her texts. It explained the implications of the story of Noah’s Ark for disaster management and by extension, crisis readiness.

“Various applications of disaster management appear throughout the historical record. The story of Noah’s Ark in the Old Testament, for example, is a lesson in the importance of warning, preparedness and mitigation. … Noah was warned of an approaching flood. He and his family prepared for the impending disaster by constructing a floating ark. [They even attempted to mitigate the effects] by collecting two of each species and placing them within the safety of the ark. These individuals are rewarded for their actions by surviving the disaster’s flood. Those who did not perform similar actions, the story tells us perished.”

Introduction to International Disaster Management, Damon P. Coppola, Elsevier Press, 2011

The 3,000 year-old story of Noah from the Old Testament reminds us of the importance of not just preparing for risk but actually doing something if it occurs. We sometimes see this ourselves at Kith where clients consider and evaluate their risks and prepare for crises but then don’t follow through and actually do something when the time comes.

This is the equivalent of Noah building the ark but not actually getting inside with the animals when the rains came.

Our successful clients on the other hand also act when the time comes. They have identified gaps – gaps in how they communicate internally or a lack of coordination between groups – and they close these. They prepare, train and run exercises and simulations. And most importantly, when a crisis emerges they react.

So the story of Noah is certainly one about preparation and readiness, but it is also directly related to action. Had Noah understood that there was a risk coming but done nothing, then that would have been a very different story. Instead, what he did is took the warning, assessed the risk and took action.

This in itself is a valuable lesson but, while I was pondering the story of Noah, another historic reference came to mind. This one isn’t quite as old, only 20 years instead of 3,000, but it’s equally if not more relevant.

Norm Augustine

Norm Augustine was the CEO of Lockheed Martin Corporation and had a very distinguished career in government and business. By his own admission, Augustine had seen his fair share of crises and disasters in the commercial and political worlds and in 1995 he wrote ‘Managing the Crisis You Tried to Prevent’ for the Harvard Business Review. What triggered my memory was this line:

“When preparing for crises, it is instructive to recall that Noah started building the ark before it began to rain.”

Similar to the earlier quote, Augustine reminds us that preparing and acting in advance of the crisis is critical to success. However, his article covers much more, all firmly rooted in his personal experiences of crises from (at that time) over 40 years in government and business.

In Managing the Crisis You Tried to Prevent, Augustine outlines six different stages of crisis. I cannot recommend the article highly enough as, despite the intervening 20 years, everything he wrote still applies today. As a ‘taster’ I have summarized his six ideas below but I really encourage you to read the full article.


Augustine’s first point is the most sensible but least practiced: do everything that you can to simply avoid the crisis in the first place. That’s all about taking a long, edgeless view, identifying the warning signs and reacting quickly. Much as we love to see clients think about crisis readiness, too few think about what they can do to prevent a crisis in the first place.

We often get asked to share case studies of clients who successfully managed a crisis with our help but what we rarely talk about are the clients who avoided a crisis altogether. The times when we were able to get involved, issue a statement, mitigate the impact and prevent the critical moment in the first place. A lot of organizations need to pay more attention to how they can avoid a crisis at the outset.


The second thing Augustine talks about is preparing to manage the crisis. Do you have the skills? Do you have the resources? Are you crisis ready?

This is where he references Noah and notes that he began building the ark before it rained. So what can you do to identify those gaps, understand where your organization has deficiencies in internal communication, in coordination, in skills and how can you overcome these to be crisis ready?


Recognizing you’re in a crisis as early as possible is critical to success but it’s something where a lot of organizations and leaders fail. They put their head in the sand and refuse to accept that the company is in any kind of trouble, far or less a crisis. They dismiss social media traffic saying that it’s not enough to warrant a reaction or ignore a staff concern, believing it is going to blow over. This almost never happens and the problem when it comes is usually more severe than it could have been.

Now, not every tweet or complaint to personnel is the start of a crisis so being able to determine smoke versus fire is important. The best way that we have seen to do that is to start by identifying some thresholds that will cause you to react. Then set up your ‘intelligence system’: listen to stakeholders and influencers, monitor social media and the press and use whatever information-gathering tools you have. Then it should be as simple as setting a plan in motion when you see a threshold approaching. The key thing here is that you need everyone to be honest and objective about what they are seeing, not brush things under the carpet and pretend it’s business as usual.


There are two parts to containing a crisis. First, by avoiding, preparing and realizing you are in a critical moment as early as possible, you might be able to contain the critical moment, preventing the crisis from spreading through the whole organization. However, the second part of containing the crisis concerns the response itself.

We’re working with a client right now where a crisis that they’re involved with has become all consuming: the CEO, the General Counsel, the Chief of Staff, the Head of Communications and operational leaders are all wholly immersed in the situation. Moreover, the numerous phone calls, frequent meetings and actually executing their response plan is taking them away from their day-to-day responsibilities. So not only is the crisis damaging the affected parts of the business, but the unaffected parts are being harmed because the senior leaders are AWOL from their day jobs.

So while it’s critically important to manage the crisis itself, you must contain crisis and the response. Wall off your crisis team and don’t make matters worse by letting the crisis seep into the wider organization.


Stage five is resolving the crisis: how do you get out of this situation fast? This is where your mission and values, paired up with your chain of command, equal speed. This will let you resolve the crisis in a timely fashion while still doing the right thing based on empathy and understanding. It’s about understanding that even though the crisis doesn’t have a neat finish, that your role is to get to the end as quickly as possible.


Augustine’s last point might seem out of place: how do you profit from a crisis? This might seem tasteless until you realize that he’s not talking about profiting financially. Instead, Augustine’s point here is: ‘what can you learn from the crisis?’ Remember, many things that we now take for granted – reliable medicine, safe airlines, clean air and water – are the results of things we learned from terrible events in the past.

Therefore you have to look at the period after a crisis as an opportunity to make your organization better. What has to be improved? How do you benchmark? How would you react in the future to the same challenges that are now behind you? Do you need to reassess or reassert your mission and values?

And remember that others can profit from what you have learned so you need to be honest and share your experiences. Just as Augustine does in his article.

Noah → Augustine → You

It had been a long time since I’d read the 1995 article by Mr. Augustine and I enjoyed re-reading it immensely. Moreover, I was surprised by how relevant and applicable his advice still is today, over 20 years later. But that’s less surprising when we think that the lessons from how Noah prepared for the flood 3,000 years back are still relevant.

All of this is a wonderful reminder that inspiration and learning can come from a range of sources – an email from my daughter, a 24-year old HBR article and the Old Testament. But the key thing is that these examples only help if we read and implement these lessons. So please make sure that the next person is you: take these lessons and put them to work.

Thank you, Sylvia.


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Courage and conviction in crafting an op-ed Mon, 11 Feb 2019 14:50:41 +0000 Critical takeaways Op-eds are a powerful way of telling your story in a crisis and should be in every communicator’s tool kit. Op-eds written by a committee will fail to make your points clearly. Communications should write the piece with input from the subject matter expert. This guidance note is based on our experience using […]

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Critical takeaways
  • Op-eds are a powerful way of telling your story in a crisis and should be in every communicator’s tool kit.
  • Op-eds written by a committee will fail to make your points clearly. Communications should write the piece with input from the subject matter expert.
  • This guidance note is based on our experience using op-eds in a crisis or critical moment and will help you get the most of this opportunity.


One of the best tools available for getting your message across and sharing your story is an op-ed or opinion piece. These have the potential to reach thousands of people and convey the authority of the publication to your message.

We often work with our clients during critical moments or crises to help craft op-eds for newspapers, magazines and occasionally for video platforms. Unfortunately, these valuable pieces are often created by a committee and, as the old adage goes, a camel is a horse that was designed by committee.

Having lots of individuals with the pen leads to multiple perspectives being shoehorned into the same article. In the end, everybody gets one or two points included that they really like but nobody’s happy with the whole product. This valuable means of communications has been squandered.

There are lots of good articles on successful op-ed writing in general, but we have found the following to be the key points to keep in mind in a critical moment or crisis. These will ensure that you maximize the usefulness of this powerful storytelling opportunity.

Start strong

First, you have to start strong and get the first paragraph right. You only have 50-100 words to make the key point crisply and illustrate it with a story to state your case. This begins by offering a clear, unambiguous opinion or perspective and then helping the reader understand why this point of view matters. Be bold with that perspective and have the courage of your convictions.

Then expand, reinforcing your ideas with facts. The Communications team and subject matter expert must work side-by-side to tell your story accurately and effectively. That will give you a unique perspective based on the expert’s history and understanding that other team members will not have.

Tell a story

Focus on your one main point and tell a story throughout the piece. Explain why this is relevant and why the reader should be interested. Too often we see op-eds that become a litany of grievances or things that need to be corrected. That’s not effective. Instead, have a focused idea that you explain using a story and real-life examples. This is something that the reader can relate to, find relevant and will help them see things through your lens.

If you have to say ‘sorry’, say it clearly

If you are saying sorry, say it clearly and unequivocally. Often, op-eds that we prepare include some kind of an apology and the ability to say, “I’m sorry,” is an increasingly important part of corporate strategy. Mistakes do happen and organizations have to make it right.

Part that will be a list of actions or remediation efforts that you’re going to conduct to mitigate the crisis. Explaining all of that is appropriate but first, you have to say ‘sorry’. That needs to be in the context of the impact on an individual or a group of individuals, but the key thing is to say sorry and acknowledge what you did. Explain the rationale of why you did what you did and why you’re taking this particular course of action to rectify things. But often it has to start with ‘sorry’.

Check your facts

Mistakes or inaccuracies will make your op-ed seem sloppy or insincere. At worst, it can look as though you are not telling the truth. So get your facts right and, if you think a data point might shift over time, say that this is your understanding ‘at the time of writing’. Again, this is where the subject matter expert is key to getting things right.

State your case or write a rebuttal (but not both)

Next, think about what to do about the opposing viewpoint. One approach is to simply lay out your case and focus on telling your story. The other is to rebut the opposing narrative. We’ve tried both and have found it’s difficult to do both in one article. You’re usually constrained to between 750 and 1,000 words which makes it difficult to cover everything and your key message will get lost.

So we encourage you to understand public perception and react accordingly. If the opposition’s argument is a hurdle to progress, then you must rebut that before you can move on. Alternately, if what’s needed is simply for people to understand your perspective, then just tell your story. Depending on the situation, you may find that you need both approaches at different times but we advise against trying to combine the two things in one piece.

Don’t write by committee

Finally, the most important thing is to have as few people involved as possible. Like any statement or press release, an op-ed written by a committee will be the worst of all worlds. We strongly advocate that someone from Communications writes the piece with input from the appropriate subject matter expert. Aim for a tight, accurate first draft using these rules as guidance and limit the number of revisions.

Doing it well the first time – telling a strong, compelling story supported by facts – has the greatest likelihood of success and limits the need for drafts flowing back and forth. Just don’t forget to let Legal and the CEO see the final version as a final ‘sense-check’. If you have a standard approval process use it – the point is to do it late in the journey, not up front. Let the experts do their job.

Seize these opportunities

Use an op-ed as a powerful tool for getting your message across whenever you have the opportunity. This is a particularly powerful platform in a critical moment or crisis. Keep these tips in mind to ensure that it is effective and, most of all, don’t write by committee or you’ll end up with a camel when you were hoping for a racehorse.


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Crisis on the edge – Part II Thu, 31 Jan 2019 22:24:41 +0000 Critical takeaways Nature doesn’t have clear-cut edges and neither do crises. Taking an edgeless, long-term view of a crisis improves our ability to learn after an event and also helps us prepare and improve our actions beforehand. Here are five ways that an ‘edgeless’ mindset will help you better prepare and give you a significant […]

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Critical takeaways
  • Nature doesn’t have clear-cut edges and neither do crises.
  • Taking an edgeless, long-term view of a crisis improves our ability to learn after an event and also helps us prepare and improve our actions beforehand.
  • Here are five ways that an ‘edgeless’ mindset will help you better prepare and give you a significant advantage in the period before a crisis hits.


We previously asked the question ‘do crises have edges?’, based on the idea that nature doesn’t have edges and there’s not as much of a clear-cut difference between things as we might think. I believe that crises are similar: there’s not as clear a beginning or end as we might think. Instead, crises are ‘edgeless’. By understanding that, we can ensure that we learn the right lessons after a crisis.

But this ‘edglessness’ also has implications in the period prior to a crisis. Understanding that there’s not a clear, ‘hard start’ to a crisis will allow you to develop a mindset that helps you better prepare and act beforehand.

I believe that there are five key ways that this edgeless mindset can give you a significant advantage in the run-up to a crisis. You might even be able to avoid a crisis altogether.

First, the lessons learned will be deeper and look at root cause and will lead to greater improvement. Not only will this improve your in-the-room response, but you will be able to see how any preparatory actions could have been improved; how your training and exercises can be more effective; or how you should change your views on what to do in the aftermath. This broader view of the lessons-learned will improve your crisis readiness across the board.

(But don’t forget that you need to ensure that the right lessons are being learned in the first place.)

Secondly, taking a long view mentally prepares the crisis management team for an extended endeavor that might not have a clean-cut end. This change of mindset at the outset will significantly improve the ability of those involved to cope with a response that could last for months. Even though the high-intensity, immediate response won’t go on that long, the litigation, structural changes and reputation rebuilding will.

This places an immense amount of stress on everyone involved and the crisis will “win” if people burn out, get tired or simply give up in the face of what seems to be a never-ending struggle back to respectability. A long-term mindset won’t remove all of this stress, but starting with a realistic attitude will make the journey easier.

Thirdly, our pattern recognition will improve significantly. This long “edgeless” view of what happened before the crisis management team mobilized allows us to increase our ‘library’ of templates or patterns to apply to future situations. Moreover, we will have a better idea of how a particular template played out in reality. That way, we are less likely to select a course of action that’s a tactical success but fails in the long-term: we will have more patterns to compare it to.

The fourth point is closely related to pattern recognition and is probably the most important.

Taking the long-term view helps us identify the warning signs that signify a crisis is brewing. We can respond much earlier if we identify the warnings or ‘flags’ which signal that an event is developing. These flags will stand out as you examine the run-up to other crises and you can use these alongside our risk framework to start to map out how situations develop.

These flags help you respond more quickly: you might even have enough time to tackle the root cause early and to prevent the crisis in the first place.  But even if you aren’t prescient enough to avoid the problem completely, you can still buy yourself enough time to be proactive, spin up the response more quickly and start to tackle the problem as early as possible.

Finally, taking a long-term view will help you remain aligned with your mission and values. It is much easier to do these justice if you are planning and responding with a long-term perspective. Having your values in mind early on will help you stick to your crisis ‘rhumb line’ throughout the crisis and stay on track. This mindset also helps you avoid doing something that’s expedient in the short-term but doesn’t fit your long-term values.

The key thing with all of these suggestions is that you get none of the benefits if you think that there’s a clear beginning and end to a crisis.

That’s short term, finite game thinking: that a crisis is a set engagement between two teams based on an agreed set of rules where one team will win and it will end at a fixed point. Much as I wish that were the case and that we could cleanly “win” at crisis, my years in this business tell me otherwise.

My advice is to forget the idea that there’s a clear start and finish to a crisis. Rather, think of these as edgeless, blurry situations which evolve over time and take weeks or months to close out.

So take the long view. Accept that the moment you realize you are in crisis is weeks, maybe months or years, after the point where the crisis actually began. You need to prepare and act accordingly.

This long, edgeless mindset will allow you to learn better lessons, improve your performance and move to a proactive stance, maybe even allow you to avoid the crisis in the first place.


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Crisis Edges Fri, 25 Jan 2019 15:30:55 +0000 Critical takeaways Situations in nature that appear to have clear edges are often more complex and blurry at the boundaries. This is the same in a crisis where there isn’t as clear a start and end as we might think. Thinking about crises as ‘edgeless’ allows us to learn more which improves our crisis response […]

The post Crisis Edges appeared first on KITH.

Critical takeaways
  • Situations in nature that appear to have clear edges are often more complex and blurry at the boundaries.
  • This is the same in a crisis where there isn’t as clear a start and end as we might think.
  • Thinking about crises as ‘edgeless’ allows us to learn more which improves our crisis response and may even prevent similar situations in the future.


Here at KITH, we enjoy listening to podcasts on a range of topics as these often give us food for thought from unexpected areas. One that I particularly enjoy is NPR’s The Hidden Brain which investigates how our subconscious drives our behavior in unexpected ways. One phrase, in particular, jumped out at me in a recent episode (emphasis mine):

Nature doesn’t have edges. Humans like to think there is a clear demarcation between one species and the next, between one gender and the next, between one season and the next. But when you look closely, these categories get blurry, especially at the boundary between category A and category B.”

NPR, Hidden Brain November 2018

In this case, the discussion concerned gender and sexuality and how things that we might think of as clear cut, aren’t always straightforward from nature’s perspective. Now, I appreciate that this particular topic might excite some lively comment so I’m not going to dwell on that because it was the broader point that got me thinking.

Do crises have edges?


What’s an edge?

We need to think about what we mean by an edge before we jump into crises specifically. An edge is a clear demarcation between two things that are different or a finite point where one thing ends and another begins. So we can differentiate between gas, liquid and solid, a man and a woman, a dog and a cat, city and country or land and sea.

Unfortunately, if we think about these examples for a moment, the differences aren’t as clear cut as we think. There’s often a convergence zone or overlap between two things where these meet. Exactly where the ocean ends and the land begins changes with the tide. Cities rarely stop with a hard edge. Instead, properties gradually space out until you realize you are in the country. Even something as apparently rigid as chemistry can become blurry (plasma anyone?).

So in all these cases, there’s not as hard and fast an edge as we think. Instead, there’s a blurry boundary between A and B.

And I think that it’s the same with crises.


Are there edges in a crisis?

A crisis is an event or situation that derails a company from its daily course of action. It has to turn away from its overall objectives until the crisis is resolved. Moreover, the impact of a crisis is usually significant in the long term because of procedural changes or litigation. At a minimum, it creates unwanted scrutiny in the moment and those with long memories will remember the crisis and judge the company based on that.

Beforehand, however, there is a time where a company is engaged in normal operations and is clearly not in crisis. And similarly afterward, there is a time where the company is back to business as usual.

But that begs the question, do crises have edges? Is there a hard boundary between crisis and normal operations before and after the event? And how would edges – or the absence of edges – affect the way you respond as a communicator?

Let’s take two relatively typical crisis situations to see if there are edges and what this might mean for our response.

First is a ‘straightforward’ industrial accident. These can seem clean-cut because there is often a literal boom that indicates the beginning of the crisis. But that’s not the actual start: it’s never that simple. Whether it’s an aviation crash or an explosion in a manufacturing facility, most investigations after the event don’t identify the boom as the actual start of the situation. Instead, a buildup of poor decisions, cut corners or ignored warnings eventually lead to the accident itself.

It’s the same with the second example, this time something more complex: sexual harassment. Again, there will be a moment where everything comes out into the open in the media or through a lawsuit but that’s not when the crisis started. There was probably a permissive culture in the company where small things were ignored only to grow into medium things which, in turn, grew into large things. And these problems multiplied over time because of the tolerance for increasingly egregious behavior. Again, there was no single incident, rather the root cause spread and grew over time until the crisis broke.

In both cases, safety measures will be put in place to ensure that the same series of events aren’t repeated. Senior executives will be asked to leave and new policies, procedures and training will be instituted. However, as before, this ‘end’ isn’t as clear-cut as it might seem in hindsight. These changes take months, normally years to instigate. Remember, litigation from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon tragedy was still going on in 2018. Instead of a hard ‘end’, there’s usually a gradual reduction in intensity over a long period of time.

So, similar to nature, it doesn’t seem as though crisis have edges. There’s no clear beginning or end. Instead, there’s a slow build up beforehand and a gradual ‘cooling’ that follows until business as usual is resumed.

But what does this mean for us as crisis communicators?


What if there aren’t edges?

This lack of clear edges has implications for communicators before and after crises. I am going to look at what this means pre-crisis in a separate post because that’s a lot to look at there. For now, I want to discuss how thinking about crises as having edges means that we don’t learn as much as we should.

Remember, crises are enormous events that impact corporations in the long-term, changing behavior and attitudes, maybe even leading to new regulations. So these are definitely situations that we should learn from.

Unfortunately, we miss some of the most important learning opportunities crises present when we think about these as having a clear beginning and end. We may have solved things in the moment with good response and excellent tactics and we can build on these.

Alternately, we might have struggled during the response which is also a learning opportunity. But we encounter two big problems if we only think about what happens between the fictitious ‘beginning’ and ‘end’ of the crisis.

First, we limit ourselves to only thinking about events in this artificial time period. That means that we don’t learn anything from the period before the ‘boom’ or after the crisis management team has stood down. We don’t know if there were warning signs in the run-up or preventative measures that could have helped avoid the critical moment becoming a crisis.

And we don’t study the long-term implications of the response, implications that extended well beyond the time when the crisis management team was back at business as usual.

This short-term viewpoint robs us of the pattern recognition that will help us spot the warning signs that indicate a crisis is building. It also leads us to draw false conclusions of what did and did not work.

Instead, you should keep digging and take a long-term view. Don’t be satisfied with reviewing the performance of your chain of command, your systems and processes. You might have achieved speed of trust in the moment but was that enough? What did the crisis look like across the whole organization? What was missed beforehand? What could have been done better afterward? Could a similar situation arise again? Do you really understand the root cause?

You won’t be able to answer these questions effectively if you just think about what happened between the artificial start and end of the crisis.

The second issue is that we move on too quickly thinking things are over when they aren’t. This can be understandable after something as draining as a crisis but getting on with the next thing too quickly prevents you from learning when events are fresh in everyone’s minds.

It also robs you of the institutional knowledge that will be lost over time if not captured now. Don’t forget, organizations often lose the people involved after a crisis either because they were asked to go or because they want to move on and recover elsewhere. This knowledge will be lost if you don’t take the time to thoroughly investigate what happened.

So make sure you speak to the other subject matter experts. Discuss how you found yourself in that situation, how you can avoid it happening again and what the implications seem to be.

Keep in mind that the worst thing that can happen is that the root problem remains overlooked and is left to fester if you take too narrow a view. This is why companies can have a series of crises in a short period of time: the lessons learned and changes made were superficial and didn’t look far enough back.


No edges = better learning

So even though our primary role is to guide and advise the crisis management team in the middle of a crisis, as communicators, we still have a larger obligation to learn from the situation. Understand that crises have implications, that they don’t have clear edges and that you can’t neatly put them in a box. This kind of long-term learning really lets and organization grow. It improves their mission and values and helps them understand what they stand for.

I’m increasingly of the view that, like nature, crises don’t have hard edges: there’s no clear beginning and end. Instead, there’s a blurry transition into and out of crisis that can last for weeks or more. This aligns closely with my thinking around infinite games where there is also no end, just a continuation of the game in a slightly different form. (This is something I look at in more detail in the second post on this topic which considers what being ‘edgeless’ means for the period prior to a crisis.)

By thinking about crises as finite or binary, we fail to learn important lessons, possibly setting ourselves up to repeat the same mistakes again. So I encourage you to learn from events, soften the edges, take an opportunity to study and make those changes to your organization for the long term.


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Crises as infinite games Fri, 18 Jan 2019 00:29:15 +0000 Critical takeaways Infinite games are games where the objective is to excel and to pursue a worthy goal over the long term. Finite games with set structures and a winner/loser are limiting and ill-suited to long-term success. These two ideas are encapsulated in Simon Sinek’s book The Infinite Game and Sinek’s ‘infinite’ mindset is very […]

The post Crises as infinite games appeared first on KITH.

Critical takeaways
  • Infinite games are games where the objective is to excel and to pursue a worthy goal over the long term.
  • Finite games with set structures and a winner/loser are limiting and ill-suited to long-term success.
  • These two ideas are encapsulated in Simon Sinek’s book The Infinite Game and Sinek’s ‘infinite’ mindset is very similar to what we believe good crisis management looks like. Considering this approach will help you succeed in your overall goals and during a crisis.


In crisis response, as in business, we often hear or employ metaphors around war or sports such as “we need to go from defense to offense” or “we need some air cover”. Unfortunately, these ideas relate to ‘finite’ games, situations where there are a clear winner and loser which often isn’t the case in a crisis.

However, I was recently introduced to a book which suggests we move away from the idea of winners and losers, zero-sum or finite games, in business and instead think about ‘infinite’ games.  In his book, The Infinite Game, Simon Sinek differentiates between finite games – games where we have known players, fixed rules and a winner and loser – and infinite games where there are unknown players, changing rules, and the goal is to keep playing as long as you can.  Sinek points out that businesses, or governments, that engage in finite games can be tactically successful but still fail strategically because the opposition simply outlasts them.  Groups that engage in an infinite game, playing to advance a just cause, have greater longevity and success.  (Watch Sinek deliver a summary here).

This got me thinking about infinite game thinking in the context of crisis response and what we can learn from Sinek’s ideas.

Very often in crisis situations, it is simply a matter of survival to get through the situation.  This would appear to be something that is like a finite game because we have to ‘win’. The impact of losing is unacceptable and even the status quois a distraction that keeps the business from doing what it must.

However, whether this approach is right or not in a crisis is what’s interesting to me.  So are crises finite or infinite games?

I don’t think Sinek has changed the way I think about crisis response but I think that his five key rules for how to play an infinite game are highly relevant. Moreover, I think that approaching crises as infinite games gives you a greater chance of long-term success versus simply achieving a tactical win.

The first rule is to have a just cause. You must stand for something that matters, articulate those ideals and ensure that everyone knows what it is you stand for.  This is vital to ensure that people behave and act appropriately and knowing what you believe in is critical if you’re going to be able to articulate your story to the public. This is perfectly aligned with our crisis equation where understanding your mission, values and what you stand for, allied with a clear chain of command equals speed of trust.

equation for crisis success

A clearly articulated just cause and well-understood values are also at the heart of ethical decision-making, further increasing the relevance of this idea to effective crisis management.

Sinek next talks about courageous leadership.  Courage is what is required when companies make a mistake because we have to own up, apologize and fix it. That takes courage, particularly saying sorry, and again this is something that we’ve written a lot about.  But organizations have to be equally courageous if they make a strategic decision and need to explain it better and stand by it. They need to have the courage not to retreat on an issue because it was received badly by the public.  Or the company did a poor job explaining it. If it was a good idea, one that was well-reasoned and of strategic importance, then we should have the courage to defend it while we maintain empathy and are considerate of those in opposition.

The third requirement is a trusting team. Sinek uses United Airline and the unfortunate incident where a passenger was forcibly removed from a flight as an example of a situation where trust was severely lacking. Interestingly, that particular situation with Dr. Dau was something we looked at in detail and was even the subject of our 2017 Kith Christmas card because of all the ‘things not to do’ lessons we drew from it. Sinek makes the point that United employees feared getting in trouble more than not exercising their judgment. Sinek contrasts United with Southwest Airlines where everyone feels supported and trusted. This means staff feel safe to use their judgment which improves the passenger experience and thus benefits everyone. Anytime staff fears using their judgment because they might get into trouble is a time where you don’t have a trusting team. This would be fatal in a crisis where decision-making will stall and you will lack credible, confident storytellers who can explain what’s happening to build trust and allow you to move forward.

Fourth, Sinek cites the need for a worthy rival in a finite game as you need this to force you to improve. This differs from simply beating a weaker opponent in a finite game where you are focussed on winning.  Sinek notes that a worthy rival will force you to improve, mature and develop as you play the infinite game, even if you lose some matches along the way.  I do not simply believe that the media, plaintiffs attorneys, elected officials or regulators are rivals in the sense that we are trying to beat them. Rather, to Sinek’s point, we play ‘against’ them and while they try to advance their own ‘just cause’, they force us to be better.  A competitor or other firm which excels in the face of adversity might also be a worthy rival: someone who will make us better and force us to do things that we might not have done if we had been left to our own devices.

Lastly, we need a flexible playbook for an infinite game which is also critical in a crisis situation. In a crisis, we can’t operate with a fixed playbook because we need to take varied inputs and understand what’s going on where every situation is different. This is where the infinite game of crisis different from the finite game of operations.  A successful product roll-out playbook is well-worn because it works and can be used over and over again. There is some room for flexibility and creativity but, for the most part, roll-outs are fixed. Compare this to a crisis where every situation is different, every part moves and the situation is changing constantly. Remember,white binders are your enemy in a crisis.

So as I think about infinite versus finite games in the context of crisis situations, I don’t believe that we fundamentally need to change the way that we operate.  However, I think that having an infinite game mindset is highly relevant and advantageous for a crisis manager.  Moreover, this is a mindset that will help you as a leader at all times.  Dare I say it, it might even help you avoid some critical moments in the first place.

As with the Hippocratic Oath –first do no harm” – keep the crisis adage of “let’s not make it worse” in mind.  If you want to manage things in a finite way, to win the crisis at hand, that’s okay. But you don’t necessarily want to play simply to win. You want to keep playing forever, to grow and expand and to become a dynamic organization. One that has a clear notion of mission and values plus a clear chain of command equaling speed of trust in a crisis.

Keep the five ideas of an infinite game in mind – a just cause, courageous leadership, trusted teams, finding a worthy rival and having a flexible playbook – and see how these could benefit your organization before and during a crisis.

And if you haven’t had an opportunity to check out Sinek’s book, here’s a link to it on Amazon. Like his other books, Start with Why and then Leaders Eat Last, it’s an interesting concept and an enjoyable read.


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2018 Blog Recap Mon, 07 Jan 2019 17:17:30 +0000 In addition to seeing what we can learn from  the biggest issues of year, at Kith, we also like to conduct an annual review of our own writing. This is a good opportunity for us to reassess our thinking and to make sure that our core values and beliefs are properly reflected in our writing. […]

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In addition to seeing what we can learn from  the biggest issues of year, at Kith, we also like to conduct an annual review of our own writing. This is a good opportunity for us to reassess our thinking and to make sure that our core values and beliefs are properly reflected in our writing.

I wanted to share these with you as an end-of-year recap of our critical ideas and most important pieces from 2018. If you are a regular reader of the blog, this will serve as an end-of-year wrap up of the blog, but if you are just discovering us for the first time, this is a Cliff Notes version of our key idea from 2018 (and welcome!).

There are four big elements that I believe are key to success in a critical moment or crisis: leadership; planning; training; and the response itself. These are the themes that consistently run through our posts so I have divided the ‘highlights’ up by theme.



The leadership, character, behaviour and mindset of the CEO, are critical to success in a crisis.  A good CEO is the embodiment of the company’s values and beliefs and the tone that they set at the top, permeates the whole firm.

This year we looked at how an unprepared CEO can be the weakest link in your response or, conversely, with preparation, confidence and some introspection, the strongest. We also looked at how when it comes to the company’s ethical behaviour, that without a strong example at the top of the organization, a company will struggle to behave properly.

Finally, the thread that has run through all of our posts this year is the need for a new mindset and approach to crisis management, a mindset and approach that begins at the top.



Planning is a double-edged weapon when it comes to a crisis.  Good, thoughtful planning, risk analysis and studying previous events will help you develop superior pattern recognition and enhance your ability see around corners.

On the other hand, an over-reliance on pre-built plans, ominously lined up as a series of white binders, will stifle creativity and leave you unable to respond to the specific incident in hand, possibly even overlooking key stakeholders. This kind of planning and developing an understanding of crisis is also what will allow a communicator to develop the confidence and skills to be able to speak truth to power and to deliver confident, thoughtful advice to the CEO and senior leadership.


We are firm believers that training, especially realistic simulations, are a key to success.  Without the development of the organizational ‘muscle-memory’ required to respond, a critical moment or crisis can paralyze your team.  This kind of realistic training is also the closest you can get to a real crisis in order to discover how people will really behave. Remember, a crisis doesn’t develop your leadership, it reveals it.

Moreover, training also allows you to respond more quickly which is key to developing the speed of trust you need to be successful in a  crisis and to move from a reactive to a proactive stance.  However, crisis response is not all about skills development.  We also see the need to balance the softer skills – developing a crisis EQ – alongside the harder, technical skills we call the crisis IQ.



To me, this is the nuts and bolts tactics of the response and are actually some of the harder to write. Not because we lack the expertise, but rather because these are often very situation-specific. This year we tried to focus on the detailed ‘how tos’ or answer the specific questions we get from clients and via enquiries.

We looked at who how to engage with and think about social media in a crisis and we addressed difficulties – and how to overcome them – of saying sorry when things go wrong. We also looked at some practical elements to consider during the response such as the need to avoid departmental silos and how risk whisperers can help coordinate the flow of information.

Looking back, it has been a busy year at Kith.  In addition to our hours sitting shoulder to shoulder with clients in training and while facing real events, we have had a chance to take our learnings and codify these in our blogs posts and webinars.  I’m looking forward to exploring these four themes – leadership; planning; training; and the response itself – in more detail in 2019 and look forward to engaging with you in the comments sections, on webinars and hopefully in person.

Meanwhile, Happy New Year and we at Kith wish you a safe and prosperous 2019!

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