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Going From Bad To Worse: How To Overcome System Failure During A Crisis

June 24, 2021

Going From Bad To Worse: How To Overcome System Failure During A Crisis

Critical takeaways

  • Things go wrong and, in a crisis when things are already going wrong, it’s dangerous to assume that everything – and everyone – you need will be available and working. 
  • Instead, you need to consider your critical systems, resources and people, and think about what you’d do if these weren’t available.
  • The best way to understand what these losses look like and to learn how to overcome these are through simulations where you practice jury-rigging a solution when a key component has been removed. 

When it comes to crisis readiness, one of the things you need to plan for is a system failure. What are you going to do if – and in my experience, it’s more when than if – a critical resource, critical subject matter expert, or a member of your leadership team is unavailable. 

Staying Afloat in Choppy Waters

It’s no different when you’re sailing. What happens when you lose an engine, or a sail, or there’s water down below? These are all issues I’ve had to deal with and things that can have catastrophic consequences. So you’ve got to be able to figure out another way. 

You’ve got to know how to jury-rig a solution to be able to keep going toward your destination — or at least get you to a place of safety, so you can live to fight another day. And to do that successfully, you need to have thought through what could go wrong and how you’ll deal with it before disaster strikes.

Rarely, when you are doing crisis response and you have a system failure, is everything lost: you have other resources, assets, or other team members that you can substitute. This is something you need to know in advance but how will you know that what you’ve put in place makes a good crisis plan and how will you know what to do when you lose those resources? 

In my experience, that knowledge is best obtained from crisis simulations. In addition to the preparedness and training benefits, these are also a form of gap analysis.  

You’ll have an understanding of the team members within your organization, the assets you have — which could include outside resources — and you’ll know what other resources you can use if something becomes unavailable. 

One thing that’s frequently lost is that you need to keep in mind is access to subject-matter expertise, or perhaps a key reporter that you might have leveraged or depended upon in the past. So don’t just focus on your internal resources and assets: think about your broader response requirements when you’re doing this exercise.

Identify Your Resources and Alternatives

Once you’ve identified what you might lose and what resources you could fall back on, then you need to figure how you’d jury-rig a solution.

Start with a list of the people, systems, and assets that are important to you in crisis response. You can do this at your desk but we have had a great deal of success with organizations going through simulations — or even reviewing a real crisis – and logging the systems and the resources that they relied upon. 

First, the people. Think about your chain of command and the people you need to make your response work. So the CEO, general counsel, and CFO are obvious candidates but what about a really strong outside resource, or a communications crisis consultant that you work with. Identify all the people you rely upon in a crisis.

Second, think about systems and processes. How are decisions made, both formally and informally? And how are these decisions communicated? What systems do you rely upon to make that happen? What are the key check-ins that you use to make fast decisions? What does that rely on?

Third, what assets do you need? Previously, that might have been a dedicated room and a phone bank. That’s more likely to be a Zoom room and a private Slack group now but you might still have physical assets you need, such as a studio you use for media hits or physical documents. How can these be replaced?

Do a Practice Run

Once you’ve cataloged everything and thought about replacements, the final stage should be an exercise where you take some of those critical resources away and test yourself. Determine how you need to respond to a scenario and start to take things away. Then you can try out the makeshift solutions that you could put in place to make up for those losses. 

Some examples of things we’ve seen work well for teams are to pretend that the CEO is on an international flight and unavailable. Or that they haven’t been able to get to core shared-file assets and haven’t had access to their holding statements. One group removed both legal counsel as well as communications counsel and the participants had to take care of the situation themselves. 

Whatever you try, just make sure you wrap up by evaluating how big a difference that loss made, how successful the make-shift solution was, and determine if that would be a realistic solution in a real crisis.

Don’t just learn to survive, thrive

Preparing for situations where you don’t have every tool available will help you figure out how to implement a jury-rigged solution that you can cobble together quickly and move on.  The best way to do that is to practice and to think about these things in advance. 

That makes you more prepared but it also makes you stronger and more nimble. Plus it can help you remove bloat from your systems and processes to make your system more lean and flexible. 

So make sure you go through this exercise once the basics of your response system are in place. Run some tests to see what happens when something’s removed. How can you replace that or can you do without it altogether? Identify these backups and make sure they’re in place through exercises and training and you’ll find that you’re stronger and better prepared as a result.

Photo by Reid Naaykens on Unsplash

Filed under: Blog


Bill is a reputation management, crisis communications and professional development expert, keynote speaker, Wall Street Journal Risk & Compliance panelist, and best-selling author of Critical Moments: The New Mindset of Reputation Management. He has more than 25 years of global experience managing high-stakes crises, issues management, and media relations challenges for both Fortune 500 companies and winning global political campaigns.