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Discipline and agility in a crisis

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When Hurricane Katrina, a category 5 cyclone, hit the Gulf Coast of the United States in August 2005, the US authorities triggered a well-established set of disaster protocols: setting up a national control centre, mobilising the military, sending in medical teams and issuing instructions to hundreds of state and non-governmental organisations. While there were successes and failures, reviews were critical of the speed of the response, the lack of flexibility to adapt to changes on the ground, and the inability to get disparate organisations to work together. One local sheriff directed evacuees over the Crescent City Bridge to safety, only for them to be stopped at gunpoint and blocked from going any further by another sheriff and his team.

When we are confronted with extreme events, a common response is to rely on command and control management approaches. And there are understandable reasons for doing so. There is often a pressing need to install order amid the chaos, and there may be little time, at least at the outset, for consultation or discussion. The problem is that extreme events present unforeseen conditions and problems. They often require decisive action from central controllers. But they also require adaptation, creativity and improvisation on the ground.

We need management structures and tools that enable both discipline and agility in a crisis. Top–down approaches can succeed in mobilising large organisations, but may also create bottlenecks, struggle to identify and correct errors, demoralise people on the front line and fail to harness external support effectively. Unstructured, reactive approaches can also run into trouble, for example, the difficulties that international agencies faced, without a clear chain of command or agreed processes, in allocating resources and collaborating effectively after the Indonesian tsunami of 2004. Purposeful and adaptive responses to extreme events depend on a degree of central direction and control to help make sense of the emerging situation, direct resources where needed and enable different organisations to co-operate, coupled with flexibility for people to make decisions that reflect reality on the ground.

Different managerial approaches to extreme events

Table showing different states of focus on agility and on discipline

Reference: Adapted from work by John R Harrald at George Washington University’s Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management.

How can we respond to extreme events?

So how do we create systems that combine both discipline and agility when responding to extreme events?

  • Focus on two-way sharing of information between groups in the system, so that you build an accurate ‘common operating picture’, a knowledge basis for collective endeavour, rather than one-way communication where one level in the system tells another what to do.

  • Maintain an open tent wherever possible, consulting and sharing information with a broad range of partners, including those outside the organisation, sector, or formal decision-making structures, so you understand the constraints on others and can identify opportunities for collaboration or support.

  • Offer guidance where genuinely useful and practical support wherever possible. But be careful about establishing rules or processes that restrain others’ freedom to act. Most importantly, avoid creating processes that become bottlenecks, with people unable to get on with sensible actions because they are waiting for someone else to make a decision.

  • Give frontline teams unambiguous permission to test and apply changes to how they do their work, providing they can do it safely and effectively, their actions don’t impinge on partners’ efforts and their actions are consistent with system-wide goals and priorities.

This article draws on theory on complex systems and empirical research by social scientists on disaster response including research by John R Harrald, Louise Comfort and Russell Dynes. It highlights findings where there is consensus amongst academic researchers on the right approach.

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