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Positive Cause Analysis – Crisis Lessons

Positive Cause Analysis – Crisis Lessons

This is the time of year when many initiate training and updates for their crisis and emergency response plans. This structured approach provides a very important first line of defense. However, a purely formulaic approach of practicing an untested plan is rarely enough to address the complexities of a real corporate crisis. Here you need to learn from past crisis experiences so you can address the nuances that are so important to successful crisis response. We use the term positive cause analysis to describe this study and the crisis lessons learned.

Positive Cause Analysis

In fact, the best time to conduct a positive cause analysis is immediately after a crisis. The optimal time to assess and learn from your crisis response, as well as stakeholders’ reactions, is while the experience is still fresh. Unfortunately, few feel they have the time or energy to conduct a positive cause analysis after a crisis.

How You May Feel About Crisis Lessons

Suppose you’ve just finished the concluding press conference where the Governor praised your company for your selfless dedication to protecting the community. You did this by safely resolving the crisis and setting a new standard for a transparent and compassionate response. What more could you do? You’ve set the example for others and you’ve already been asked to speak at an industry conference. If anything, your company’s reputation is even better now than before the crisis.

The entire team and you are exhausted! You’ve been working around the clock, under extreme pressure and you dropped everything so you could successfully manage this crisis. While there always seem to be a few slips in a crisis, by any standard you and the team did a remarkable job. In fact, in most situations, you worked together just as you planned and trained.

You saved the company, your employees and the surrounding community from a catastrophe that wasn’t even your fault. Yet, you’re tired, your family needs you and customers are complaining. Even your full-time job seems ready to fall apart from neglect.

 “The results speak for themselves, so why would we subject our team to second-guessing every action,” you tell yourself. “We’ve already learned so much from this real-life exercise. Why demoralize our team now by auditing their actions at the very time when we should be celebrating them?”

Tired executive after a crisis lessons

The simple answer is that you need to capture all the crisis lessons you learned, while memories are fresh, and position yourself to do even better next time. And, don’t fool yourself, there will be a next time!

Why Positive Cause Analysis

There are two reasons to conduct a positive cause analysis. The first is for continuous improvement, ensuring that you institutionalize the best practices and prevent errors. The other is because the latest great performance has set the new expectations from those who will be watching your next crisis.

If you don’t do as well or better next time, they may perceive your emergency response as flawed, inadequate and a reflection of your failure as a corporation.  No one needs that! So, you really need to do something. A real crisis is the best way to test and improve your plans. If you don’t squander this opportunity, it can help you become the best of the best.

Importance of Crisis Lessons

Initiate a positive cause analysis as quickly as possible after a crisis and do your best to have results back within two to three months. This will ensure that the crisis is fresh enough to study and recent enough to put the crisis findings in context for your management and board.

Next, you need to determine how you position the crisis lessons learned and even what you call it. If it is a crisis post-mortem, participants will look for causes of the crisis and not what was done right. If you call it an audit, it will be perceived as looking for errors and people will be defensive. We prefer positioning it as a positive cause analysis.

The term positive cause analysis places the emphasis on identifying and reinforcing what worked well. While you will also identify problems in the crisis response, the emphasis should be on enhancing procedures for future responses rather than finding fault.

Who Conducts Positive Cause Analysis

The other important consideration is who does the post-crisis work:

  • You can do it yourself. While you need to be careful not to let your own biases cloud the information, your first-hand knowledge, perspective and expertise are relevant. Just be sure you can dedicate the time to do a thorough job in a timely manner.
  • You could assign this to more junior staff, but the lack of experience may be an issue. Make sure they have the knowledge and wisdom to make sound judgments.
  • Internal auditing can be very comprehensive in their review. However, they do not have expertise in the area, so your team will still need to be involved.
  • A functional group such as operations, communications or safety could conduct the review. Their limitation would be their comprehension of work outside their areas and the distraction from their other responsibilities.
  • A cross-functional team may not be the most efficient structure, but it does provide a broader corporate perspective on the crisis.
  • Find a firm with crisis management, crisis communications or emergency response expertise that conducts post-crisis reviews. This can allow you to capture lessons and even update plans without a significant drain on your time and staff resources. Corporate Crisis Group will conduct a positive cause analysis for its clients and there may be other firms who have this capability. The key is to bring crisis/emergency response and communication expertise together in such analyses.


You may be surprised by how much you will learn from a positive cause analysis. It may also help your team perform more proficiently. It doesn’t even need to be your crisis. You could conduct a positive cause analysis on another organization’s crisis. By applying the crisis lessons learned and exercises to your crisis plan and team, you can gain insight into how you would respond. Just be sure to update your plans and conduct drills soon, before your next crisis hits.

Crisis Assessment Team – Emerging Concern

Crisis Assessment Team – Emerging Concern

The best prospect for overcoming a crisis comes from recognizing an emerging concern while there is still time to act. A process for providing a timely crisis alert to management greatly improves the prospects for an appropriate, capable and successful response. Of course, that begs the question of how you know it is a crisis. If you respond to every emerging concern you’ll wear down and dilute your capabilities, but if you resist all activation you may permanently damage the company’s reputation. It can be difficult to get consistent, knowledgeable perspectives that allow you to respond quickly and effectively. A Crisis Assessment Team can provide that tool very effectively and efficiently.

Emerging Concern, Crisis Alert and Crisis Assessment Team

A Crisis Assessment Team is a small group with relevant perspectives and responsibilities that determine the nature of any unexpected issue or event and surmises its potential effect on the business.  In essence, they look at the initial information and determine whether the emerging concern is a crisis or something different.

The most common error we see is the assumption that a crisis and emergency are fundamentally referring to the same thing.  While they may overlap, they have very different impacts on the company. An emergency is generally an operational matter requiring coordinated responses to protect health, safety, environment or security of the people and operations associated with the incident.

A crisis is a corporate concern involving a threat to the reputation, finances, stakeholder relationships or viability of the business. An emerging crisis can threaten a company’s social license to operate, just as an emergency can threaten a facility. A crisis is a unique situation that may arise from an emergency but also arises from many other corporate issues that go well beyond what is applicable for an emergency response.  The trick for leadership is to determine when they have crisis potential and since an emerging concern is a matter of perspective, it’s important to get the right people’s perspectives in the very beginning.

Since emergency management processes have been extensively drilled for years, asset-based organizations common in manufacturing, oil, gas, chemicals, and energy typically think of crisis events that can be observed visually such as fires, spills, explosions, multiple injuries and similar events that are associated with rescues, flashing lights, and sirens.  Even though those are horrible situations, it’s not always true that those events equal a crisis.  Depending on the preparedness and response capabilities of an organization, many of those events could be classified as emergencies only.

Conversely crisis situations can originate from emergencies but often originate from things that are not easily observed such as leaks about earnings or production, reputation attacks, improper relationships, ethics violations, criminal activity or rumors.  It’s important to quickly distinguish the potential of any event of significance and give it an insightful review by those who are best able to put it in the appropriate context to ascertain its potential and figuratively sound the crisis alarm.

You may be saying to yourself that you already have this system in place.  You may also be familiar with different risk, rank or consequence modeling tools that use the words like “tier”, “category” or “level” for categorizing risks, labeling emergencies, levels of response and financial losses.   Those tools are designed to highlight the interests and focus of the disciplines that typically use them.  Health, Safety & Environment (HSE), Security and Risk Management departments, as well as the National Response Center and other government agencies that regulate industries commonly use these systems and measurement terms.

However, despite the information these tools provide, they almost never translate into a usable “big picture” characterization of the emerging crisis issue and a problem for company leadership.  These tools are guides and technical management instruments that assist with the organization of resources and levels of capital commitment expected.

Unfortunately, those classification tools don’t give you that “special picture” that comes from senior level perspectives, instincts, and experience.  That’s the purpose of a Crisis Assessment Team; to quickly get focus on the “special picture” that characterizes the potential for a catastrophe to the company.  That picture doesn’t organically focus when you’re presented with “This is a Tier 3 event”, “we have a level 4 risk” or “this qualifies as a category 2”.  Those classifications are critical for any number of things but they’re not what we’re talking about.

Who are the people that can really determine you have a crisis or if crisis potential is present?  When should those people try to make those determinations?  Wouldn’t it be better if those people knew about such an event up front before it got out of hand?

We know of many crisis events that started out simply as a small wound but quickly festered and became septic for the company.  They were routine emergencies, security or public relations issues that strayed off course and weren’t known by leadership until the crisis was evident to everyone.  Many times, those leaders will say that they could have seen it coming and mitigated the situation if they had known or been involved from the beginning, but no corporate executive can be expected to handle everything.

Emerging Concern, Crisis Alert and Crisis Assessment Team

It’s that situation that a Crisis Assessment Team will help to avoid or mitigate.  They’ll be able to activate the crisis management team with authority and sense of purpose.  Leadership won’t be coming in after the fact and attempting to catch up or come from behind.

Given a set of simple parameters defining when a Crisis Assessment Team notification is warranted, the evaluation of any situation can be done in just a few minutes either in person or using controlled secure communications.  The team could be composed of the following or their equivalent.

  1. Senior Crisis Management Process Owner
  2. A senior leader of the affected business, asset, function or department
  3. Senior Counsel – A senior attorney that thoroughly understands company operations and positioning.
  4. A senior leader of Communications and Public Affairs
  5. Head of Health, Safety, Environment, and Security

From a quick and candid discussion, an emerging concern can be evaluated for its potential impact to the overall operations of the company, potential to result in litigation, potential impact to the safety and security of employees and the public, and potential for damaging media, stakeholder or government involvement.

Of course, there are many reporting and notification plans and systems in every industry.  Many already have a mechanism for this type of evaluation in the process, but it usually waits until the emerging concern is sufficiently advanced to warrant executive notification through some sort of crisis alert. The idea here is to instead establish a quick, unobtrusive mechanism to advise and involve the crisis assessment team early.

Even if a decision is made to wait and observe with no crisis management team activation, at least they’re aware of the wound and can provide first aid or choose to see if it will heal on its own.  The dominant purpose of a Crisis Assessment Team is to get leadership awareness at the earliest possible moment.  They can decide that activating the crisis team is immediately warranted, not warranted or needed in a limited capacity.  At least they’ll have options from the beginning rather than waiting until the issue is already cemented or lost.

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