noahs arc

Noah and Augustine: a crisis history lesson

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.

Avoid

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.

Prepare

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?

Recognize

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.

Contain

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.

Resolve

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.

Profit

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.