Discipline and agility in a crisis

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Part of Leading through Covid-19

Leading through Covid-19

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


Covid-19 focus table

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.



Ben Collins

Projects Director,
The King's Fund
Comment date
13 May 2020

Thanks so much for your comments and suggestions, Jane, Hannah and others. I'm sure that Jos de Blok's thinking on how to protect team autonomy is relevant to our current challenges. On the Canterbury earthquake, I remember reading about how health services in Canterbury were able to accelerate service transformation following the earthquake, for example transferring to electronic records and moving care into the community. It is only a small ray of sunlight, but its exciting to hear of local NHS systems doing similar things.

Hannah Morley

Advanced Physiotherapy Practitioner,
Comment date
12 May 2020

Very useful article. Succinctly explains the effects we see in responding to crisis. Also reflects my findings frmo my Churchill Fellowship investigating health care organisational response to the Christchurch Earthquake in 2011. See my article on this and also my presentation to the NHSE/I AHP Leadership which can be accessed on the FutureNHS Collaboration platform

Lawrence McAnelly

Hospital of God
Comment date
11 May 2020

Agree the webinar from Jos De Blok was very useful, provided a good insight. Well worth watching.

jane Pightling

evolutionary connections
Comment date
08 May 2020

A good article and aligns with some of my work on decision making frameworks that support moe autonomous ways of working. There was a very useful webinar earlier this week from Jos De Blok about how his team has been providing leadership. It offers some vital learning and interesting comparisons. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vinJuvrgpEY A recording is here.

Norma Raynes

From Genenration to Generation
Comment date
07 May 2020

It is essential to have two way communication and value the shop floor input . Centralised control and command is destructive and wasteful of resources. Local solutions are based on local knowledge and some central buying etc can be useful but only if it is plugged into local information for sourcing and need. It is terrible to see the waste and destructiveness of a government obsessed with a command and control mentality and a predilection for private eneterprise at a time like this pandemic .o

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