Hit the gym and develop your crisis muscle memory

January 31, 2020

Critical takeaways

  • Individuals build muscle memory by conducting physical movements repeatedly. Organizations can do the same by practicing their crisis response frequently.
  • Muscle memory applies equally to both good habits and inefficient workarounds so care needs to be taken that the muscles being developed are the right ones.
  • Work with your team to practice and embed agreed procedures and good habits to build your organization’s crisis muscle memory.


Muscle memory is a type of motor learning based on repetition. When a movement – even a complex one, like swinging a golf club or riding a unicycle – is repeated regularly over time, the brain and muscles create neural pathways that enable these tasks to be performed without much conscious effort. 


Even if you haven’t performed a movement in many years, you may have still retained sufficient muscle memory for the task to become second nature again quickly. As the saying goes, “it’s like riding a bicycle.”


Similarly, the concept of muscle memory can be applied to effective crisis response. Experienced crisis responders can call upon their training and actions in past crises allowing them to jump right into executing a crisis plan. 


Kith’s Equation for Crisis Success is all about achieving speed because your organization’s reputation is more likely to survive intact if you are ahead of the story. In our equation, speed arises from alignment on what the organization truly stands for (“core values”) and effective decision-making processes by those in charge (“chain of command”). 



Speed also arises from muscle memory. Organizations respond faster when their internal neural pathways are hardwired for crisis response. These pathways are developed through repetition and practice. 


However, sometimes an organization’s chain of command is not at peak performance because critical people may be out, essential skill-sets are temporarily lacking, a crucial technology is down, or some other “injury” has occurred to the organization. Overcoming this “injury” is necessary to respond to the crisis effectively. Organizations with well-developed muscle memory will overcome injuries more effectively than untrained organizations.


However, muscle memory can also apply to bad habits.


I’ve been doing CrossFit for more than a decade and, several years ago, I hurt my shoulder. Working with my coach, we worked around the injury so that I could continue to lift weights above my head. These “workarounds” were inefficient movements and I could lift considerably less weight because of them, but I was still able to lift overhead. I overcame my injury and continued to perform, albeit at a lower level of output. 


However, long after my shoulder healed and I no longer needed the “workarounds,” I found myself still doing them. Even now, several years later, I can still slip into “workaround mode” if I do not stay focused on using proper techniques. As the saying goes, “Old habits die hard.”


So you need to be careful that the muscle memory you are developing is not an inefficient, unhealthy, or unsustainable pattern. In some cases, instead of preserving the correct way of performing a task, muscle memory locks in the adaptation or bad habit, even after the conditions giving rise to them are long gone. Because muscle memory is essentially like being on autopilot, we may not be conscious that we are shortchanging ourselves.


For crisis responders, “workarounds” developed out of necessity during one crisis can negatively impact responses to future crises. For example, if an operations manager was not able to reach a supervisor because they were on vacation, the manager might reach out to the communications director directly, an action the supervisor would typically have taken. The next time a crisis happened, the manager would be more likely to bypass his supervisor again and go straight to the communications director. 


The first time was a “workaround” to overcome the supervisor’s absence. The second time was an inefficient movement because the supervisor was not informed and would have been caught flat-footed when their boss – say, the COO – asked them about how they were responding to the crisis. A bad habit has been learned.


So, how does an organization take advantage of its crisis response muscle memory without succumbing to repeating bad habits?


First, everyone involved in crisis response should know their responsibilities and execute them as per the agreed process. They should inform the people they are supposed to notify using the proper means at the appropriate time.


Second, everyone needs to know the backup plan in case a key person in the chain of command is unavailable and the “workarounds” that allow the execution of the crisis response plan. This is especially important for choke points, where one individual is responsible for a step in the process and it cannot go forward without them. A “workaround” should be in place to ensure continued progress, but it should only be used when needed.


Third, review every crisis response after the fact to learn what worked well, what didn’t work, what was efficient, and what took too much time. Take the opportunity to review and update crisis response plans and develop plans to improve skill sets while it is all still fresh in everyone’s mind.


Fourth, practice, practice, practice. Simulations are critical to effective crisis response. They not only keep skill sets sharp – developing the proper muscle memory needed for success – but also give the team the chance to fill gaps and see issues in their chain of command before a crisis hits.


Finally, one of the best ways to short-circuit any bad habits is to create an “alternative universe” simulation where the team imagines it works for a completely different company in another industry. Pick one of their crisis events and discuss how your team would have handled it. Take this “alternative universe” approach a step further by mixing up your roles. Have the attorney be the engineer, the communications director be the CEO, the human resources director be head of communications, and so forth. 


As a CrossFitter, I would never learn any new techniques if I relied on muscle memory, no matter how precisely I was performing the movement my coach taught me. The same is true for crisis responders. “Alternative universe” simulations similarly spark creativity and innovation because these are entirely outside everyone’s muscle memory. 


Growth requires breaking free of muscle memory, learning new patterns, and then repeating them until they become second nature. Muscle memory can be a powerful asset for crisis responders, but we have to be vigilant for occasions when that muscle memory leads to inefficient, incorrect “workarounds” when we don’t need them or when it prevents us from growing.


Filed under: Blog

Jeff Blaylock

Jeff is an experienced strategic communications and public affairs professional who has advised organizations through challenging media and political environments, public affairs campaigns, reputation management, message development and crises.