- 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.