With Boeing and its 737 Max we’re seeing one more example of how not to manage a crisis. Through the years, many have done this well and less well. The common theme is that leading through a crisis is about inspiring and enabling others to get things vaguely right quickly, and then adapt along the way – with clarity around direction, leadership and roles.

This plays out in three steps of a disciplined iteration in line with an organization’s overall purpose:

1. PREPARE IN ADVANCE: The better you have anticipated possible scenarios, the more prepared you are, the more confidence you will have when crises strike.

2. REACT TO EVENTS: The reason you prepared is so that you all can react quickly and flexibility to the situation you face. Don’t over-think this. Do what you prepared to do.

3. BRIDGE THE GAPS. In a crisis, there is inevitably a gap between the desired and current state of affairs. Rectify that by bridging those gaps in the:


  • Situation – implementing a response to the current crisis
  • Response – improving capabilities to respond to future crises
  • Prevention – reducing the risk of future crises happening in the first place


Along the way, keep the ultimate purpose in mind. It needs to inform and frame everything you do over the short, mid and long term as you lead through a crisis instead of merely out of a crisis. Crises change your organization. Be sure the choices you make during crises change you in ways that move you towards your purpose and not away from your core vision and values.

This is recapped in our Crisis Management tool. Click here to get a free copy or download it from www.onboardingtools.com.

Prepare in advance


  • Establish crisis management protocols, explicitly including early communication protocols.
  • Identify and train crisis management teams (with clear leadership and roles.)
  • Preposition human, financial, and operational resources.


Note preparing in advance is about building general capabilities and capacity – not specific situational knowledge. For the most part, there is a finite set of the most likely, most devastating types of crises and disasters that are worth preparing for. Think them through. Run the drills. Capture the general lessons so people can apply them flexibly to the specific situations they encounter. Have resources ready to be deployed when those disasters strike.

Threats may be one or more of the following, often in combination:


  • Physical (Top priority. Deal with these first.)
  • Reputational (Second priority. Deal with these after physical but before financial threats.)
  • Financial (Third priority)


Physical threats and crises may be


  • Natural: earthquakes, landslides, volcanic eruptions, floods, cyclones, epidemics etc.
  • Man-made: stampedes, fires, transport accidents, industrial accidents, oil spills, nuclear explosions/radiation, war, deliberate attacks, etc.


Reputational threats and crisis may flow from physical threats and crisis and how they are handled, or may come from: choices by you or others in your organization, outside interventions, sudden awareness of things already there, etc.

Financial threats come from disruptions in your value chain: supply or product or resources (including cash), manufacturing, selling/demand, distribution, service, etc.

Now, back to three things you should do to prepare.

Establish crisis management protocols. Lay out who’s going to do what when in a crisis. In general, you’ll want first responders to deal with immediate physical threats to people and property. They should i) secure the scene to eliminate further threats to others and themselves; ii) provide immediate assistance to those hurt or injured or set up a triage system to focus on those that can most benefit from help; iii) trigger your communication protocols.

There are two parts to your communication protocols. Part I protocols deal with physical issues. Part II deal with reputational issues.

Part I protocols spell out who gets informed when (with lots of redundant back-ups built in.) These should have a bias to inform more people faster.

Part II protocols are about formal, external communication. At a minimum, the one, single primary spokesperson (and back-up,) message and communication points should be crystal clear. Three over-arching ideas from the Forbes Agency Council’s 13 Golden Rules of PR Crisis Management:


  • Develop strong organizational brand culture to ward-off self-inflicted crises and be better ready to deal with others.
  • Monitor, plan and communicate, ever on the lookout for potential crises. Then be proactive and transparent, getting ahead of the story and ready for the social media backlash.
  • Take responsibility. Own your own crisis in a human way. Seek first to understand, avoiding knee-jerk reactions, apologize, then take action that helps, not fuel the fire.


Identify and train crisis management teams. Protocols are useless if people haven’t been trained to apply them. Make sure your first responders are trained in first aid and triage. Make sure your communicators are trained in communicating in a crisis so people know whom to contact when and when to trigger crisis management protocols.

One of the learnings from the Boeing 737 Max crashes is that their crisis management protocols should have been triggered years ago. It seems that some knew there was a potential problem and chose not to deal with it.

Prepositioning human, financial, and operational resources. People need direction, training and resources. Make sure there’s a site leader at each of your sites with access to cash. Make sure your first responders have working first-aid kits.

React to events

Our fight or flight instincts evolved to equip us for moments like this. If the team has the capabilities and capacity in place, turn it loose to respond to the events. This is where all the hard work of preparation pays off.

A big part of this is knowing when and how to react without under or over-reacting.


  • Someone was counterfeiting Coca-Cola fountain syrup. The only differences between the counterfeit syrup and Coca-Cola’s was an extra line on the package and the addition of preservatives. No risk to consumers. No reputational risk. Some financial impact. Choose not to react. Hired private investigators. Found the counterfeiters. Shut them down without anyone ever knowing. Well done.
  • Capper got out of sync, shredding glass shards onto the lip of glass bottles. Clear physical risk to consumers. Shut down the capper. Recalled all product getting every bottle out of every vending machine within 48 hours. Well done.
  • Handful of school children got sick in school after drinking Coca-Cola. Investigations indicated there was nothing wrong with the product so Coca-Cola did nothing. More children got sick. It turned out preservative from pallets on which Coke cans were stored reacted to the ammonia wash inside Coca-Cola vending machines leading to the illnesses. Classic under-reaction led to massive forced recalls, huge financial and reputational damage.


The story of Procter & Gamble’s reaction to its New Orleans’ Folger’s plant getting destroyed by Hurricane Katrina is a model for how to over-react in the best possible way. Their essential steps included:


  • Contacting every employee they could, eventually finding all 550 to be safe.
  • Putting $5,000 into every employee’s bank accounts immediately to help them deal with short-term issues no questions asked while continuing to pay everyone their full salary during the shut-down.
  • Bringing 130 trailers and dining facilities and personal care products to the plant parking lot for temporary housing for those that needed it.
  • Flooding the area with people (pun intended) to get the plant back up and running within three weeks.


Bridge the gaps

While first responders should react in line with their training, keep in mind that random, instinctual, uncoordinated actions by multiple groups exacerbate chaos. Stopping everything until excruciatingly detailed situation assessments have been fed into excruciatingly detailed plans that get approved by excruciatingly excessive layers of management leads to things happening too late.

The preferred methodology for what Harrald calls the “integration” phase is to pause to accelerate, get thinking and plans vaguely right quickly, and then get going to bridge the gaps with a combination of discipline (structure, doctrine, process) and agility (creativity, improvisation, adaptability).

Situational questions (Keeping in mind the physical, political, emotional context)


  • What do we know, and not know about what happened and its impact (facts)?
  • What are the implications of what we know and don’t know (conclusions)?
  • What do we predict may happen (scenarios)?
  • What resources and capabilities do we have at our disposal (assets)? Gaps?
  • What aspects of the situation can we turn to our advantage?


Objectives and Intent

Armed with answers to those questions, think through and choose the situational objectives and intent. What are the desired outcomes of leading through the crisis? What is the desired end- state? This is a critical component of direction and a big deal.


The Red Cross provides relief to victims of disasters. In doing that, the prioritization of shelter, food, water, medicine and emotional support varies by the type of disaster. If someone’s home is destroyed by a fire in the winter, shelter takes precedence. On the other hand, if a reservoir gets contaminated, the critical priority is getting people clean water.

These examples illustrate the importance of thinking through the priorities for each individual situation – and each stage of a developing crisis. The choices for isolating, containing, controlling and stabilizing the immediate situation likely will be different than the priorities for the mid-term response, getting resources in the right place and then delivering the required support over time. Those in turn will be different from the priorities involved in repairing the damage from the crisis or disaster and preventing its re-occurrence.

Get the answer to the question, “where do we focus our efforts first?” and the priority choices clear. And get them communicated to all, perhaps starting with a set of meetings to:


  • Recap current situation and needs, and what has already been accomplished (What)
  • Agree objectives, intent, priorities and phasing of priorities (So what)
  • Agree action plans, milestones, role sort, communication points, plans and protocols (Now what)


Bridge the gap between the desired and current state.

Support team members in implementing plans while gathering more information concurrently.

Complete situation assessment and mid-term prioritization and plans.

Conduct milestone update sessions daily or more frequently as appropriate.


  • Update progress on action plans with focus on wins, learning, areas needing help
  • Update situation assessment
  • Adjust plans iteratively, reinforcing the expectation of continuous adjustment.


Over-communicate at every step of the way to all the main constituencies. Your message and main communication points will evolve as the situation and your information about the situation evolve. This makes the need that much greater for frequent communication updates within the organization, with partner organizations and the public. Funneling as much as possible through one spokesperson will reduce misinformation. Do not underestimate the importance of this.

First officer Jeff Skiles was the “pilot in charge” of the airplane that took off, ran into a flock of birds, and lost both its engines. At that point, Captain Chesley Sullenberger chose to take over. With his “My aircraft”, followed by Jeff’s “Your aircraft”, command was passed to “Sully” who safely landed the plane on the Hudson River. Only one pilot can be in charge at a time. Two people trying to steer the same plane at the same time simply does not work.

The same is true for crisis and disaster management. Only one person can be the “pilot in charge” of any effort or component at a time. A critical part of implementation is clarifying and re-clarifying who is doing what, and who is making what decisions at what point – especially as changing conditions dictate changes in roles and decision-making authority within and across organizations. Make sure the hand-offs are as clean as the one on Sully and Skiles’ flight.

Bridge the gaps between desired and current response and desired and most recent crisis prevention (improving things and reducing risks for the future)

At the end of the crisis, conduct an after-action review looking at:


  • What actually happened? How did that compare with what we expected to happen?
  • What impact did we have? How did that compare with our objectives?
  • What did we do particularly effectively that we should do again?
  • What can we do even better the next time in terms of risk mitigation and response?


This begins your preparation for the next crisis.