Responding to Emergencies

Emergency Response Cards

On Friday, September 21, 2001 there was an explosion in the city of Tolouse, France. Since it happened ten short days after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, it meant immediate panic about a terror attack.

The public had already been primed in that direction by both politicians and the always-on news cycle. At the time, I had flights to Italy booked 20 days out and, though I didn't know it yet, I would lose my job right before Christmas.

It was a volatile time, marked by ambiguity and uncertainty. Making decisions with a clear head and resolve, and creating a plan to respond in this environment is very hard. But not impossible. This is the time we're in now.

Something happened in a VUCA world

The nature and speed of change were accelerated by what happened on 9/11, an unthinkable act. There was a lot of haziness in the air, with mixed meanings of conditions and confusion over cause and effect. This made the prospect of surprise higher, and decisions harder.

Lack of predictability further increased the level of complexity perceived in the situation. While the world was mourning a great loss of lives, trying to make sense of what had happened and reacting to it, emergency respondents and leaders were making short-term decisions very fast.

The emergency did lead to a crisis, even as so many years out the details have faded. Plans and decisions that followed that crisis stayed with us until the present day, their usefulness for what's next hardly questioned at all.

But here's the thing with crises: No two are exactly the same. Because VUCA. The acronym stands for the more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous multilateral world that came at the end of the Cold War. VUCA is the reason why many of the challenges organizations face today are adaptive in nature.

Strategy gives you power

“To live in a moment that will be in history books is not a particularly pleasant experience; history, though, has another cruelty: those that are not remembered at all.” This is how Taiwan-based tech analyst Ben Thompson opens a recent article on Compaq and coronavirus.

In an incredible feat of ingenuity and hard work, Compaq figured out how to create a version of firmware that made the computer turn on and load the operating system. They deconstructed and reconstructed the code without copying IBM's copyrighted version.

Co-founder Rod Canion says, “[We had] just a bull-headed commitment to making all the software run. We were shocked when we found out none of our competitors had done it to the same degree.” As a result, Compaq grew very fast, hitting $100 million than $1 billion in revenue. It was the largest PC-maker in the world by 1994.

What came next is not as surprising looking back, but worth remembering. Disruption happened—cheaper, good enough, computers entered the market. Compaq tried to compete at that level with the Presario, then to go the virtualization route, which worked for a while.

Then the company started outsourcing service functions instead of investing in them. Get the benefit, without incurring the cost. However, over reliance on intermediaries can backfire. “The real solution is to create your own capability. It takes longer and is more painful, but ultimately, it is more successful,” says Graham Kemp, president of G2 Research Inc. 

Eventually Compaq was folded into HP and disappeared, with huge destruction of value in several directions: Intellectual, human, social, promissory and manufacturing, along with financial. Let's not forget those other capitals, because as Thompson says, “no one even noticed.”

You can imagine your way into the future…

… While there is still time to change. It's an exhortation Max McKeown put front an center in the new edition of The Strategy Book, and for good reason. To excel at strategy, you need to excel at bridging the gap between thinking and taking action.

The best time to make progress toward any future is to prepare. A second best time is now. The opportunity to stop SARS-CoV-2 was late last year. By January, when it was still unclear what was happening, it was already too late.

Too late to stop the global spread of the virus. Too late for Italy to bring back the thousands of people who already died. Too late to be prepared to respond to the emergency in a coordinated manner, one that saves lives and manages uncertainty and ambiguity in the U.S.

But not too late to prepare for the change that will come after the crisis. However, while there's still time to change, there's no time to waste. Strategy gives you power only when you can bridge the gap between thinking (and planning) and taking action.

In a crisis, clarity of action comes from having done the work to identify who needs to be involved based on their circle of competence, who handles communications, what's the chain of command, and what's the process to handle situations that arise.

Because, as I noted in my article on responding to adaptive challenges:

Many leaders don't have enough experience creating full engagement with colleagues, asking deeper questions, connecting insight from difference sources, and doing so in real time. Analysis works well with technical challenges, but is unable to provide the coveted “silver bullet” when it comes to adaptive challenges.

There's often a new, cross-functional team with the skill sets and hard-won experience who engages with a crisis as a first line of response. It's their job to assess the situation, establish communication with experts to handle the emergency and be accountable to keep the public (employees, customers, communities) and leaders informed.

Good communication is clear, concise, correct, current, and curated, and helps prevent outrage. Good preparation involves documenting how you should act to respond in an emergency. Each member of the first response team should have a wallet-laminated card with the essential information.

Usually, this is a tri-fold card with approved protocols on the inside, and useful information on the outside: For example, how to categorize a crisis level, why this card exists, how to use it, important names and contact details. I have souvenirs from my days in chemical manufacturing and IT infrastructure services.

The stepped approach to re-build the future

A little card is not enough to respond appropriately to an emergency. It's useful for the first hour. To be honest, I don't think it goes much further than that. It's designed to take action quickly, engage the appropriate experts, and start the parallel paths of responding to the issues and figuring out what's after that.

When dealing with chemicals and biological issues, there needs to be a more robust document with “action steps.” We had a more detailed, 7-steps accordion card folded into a plastic holder (see images above) with short examples, contact information for experts, and how to handle surprises.

This allowed us to exit the crisis as quickly as possible to debrief and learn how to handle the next one better. The point of preparing is to have a flexible structure that does the heavy lifting on thinking to take action. It's the measured action  that allows you to learn from the past and support the future.

In his Compaq and coronavirus article, Thompson summarizes well how, even when late, different cultures responded differently to the current health crisis. Since the virus spread, “there has been divergence between countries that acted and countries that talked. Taiwan, where I live, is perhaps the best example of the former.”

Italy, where my family lives, has been a glaring example of the latter. There was uncertainty about drastic measures. When the response did happen, it was patchy and did not have the full coordination of the national, regional, and local bodies. Without getting too deep into Italian (or any) politics and current state of things, the response was both ineffective and insufficient.

As a result, Italy a country that counts as many World Heritage Sites as China (167), at thirty-two times its size, not to mention the natural beauty, culinary wonders, the arts, and so on — is now suffering greatly. Brand Italy will need to reinvest heavily into its future.# Paolo Labicino, former Chief Creative Officer at Ogilvy & Mather Italy, has some ideas.

What can Italy do now to help itself into the future? It can invest in its brand by doing what it should have done in the first place. How a company or nation  behaves is also part of its brand. It lost weeks, and lives, but virologist David Ho says, “we could still make a difference and bring [the situation] under control with hard measures.”

In Informazioni Senza Filtro, notary and writer Carmelo di Marco outlines the stepped approach the Italian government should take (translation/paraphrasing mine):

  1. Face the emergency as such — do what needs to be done, communicating clearly with realistic sanctions; the government takes care of the social costs in loss of work (remembering that for many that means staying in business) because people have to eat / have shelter to survive, but also because they need a future to go back to; scientists and experts do their part; citizens do their part.
  2. Justify the decisions based on the future — demonstrate how today's (exceptional) decisions feed future prospects; “The central element of this future perspective must be a clear and irrevocable decision to return as soon as possible to the full exercise of the rights, to full respect for the constitutional principles and to the full exercise by the State of all its prerogatives and functions, and no more than one.” An emergency cannot become the new normal (we'll get back to this).
  3. Take strategic action — now that we have data on how other countries were able to nip the virus in the bud, we have a new baseline to follow; di Marco says, this also means using the funds so many companies and citizens have collected to both take care of the now and fund the future.
  4. Form and communicate a realistic vision of the future — not paternalism, no reductionist statements, and none of the other shenanigans that are tempting to politicians.

It's not enough to eliminate fear to be free and healthy. The people affected want to be part of the solution. They want decisiveness and action. Italy, like many Western governments, acted late, at a great social, human, and economic cost. They suffered from overconfidence in their ability to calculate exponential growth.# Hence the cascade effects of non-decisions and poor trade-offs.

Because we did not take action then, now we're at the large-scale economic bailout stage. Barry Ritholtz explains what the bailouts could accomplish. If we're thoughtful and intelligent in our approach. Every day and hour of inaction, indecision and waffling over the remedial steps will cost lives, literally, and livelihoods. Mariana Mazzucato says this is a chance to do capitalism differently.

Thompson adds an excellent thought, “if the real trade-offs to consider are about trading away civil liberties — which is exactly what has happened in Taiwan, at least to some extent — then the imperative to preserve debate about these matters is even more important.”

The ability to talk is the most precious civil liberty. But there are others worth considering, as di Marco says; they were worth fighting and dying for when they were put in place. After a major crisis, it's useful to monitor the remedies you apply, and take action to move towards a future that learns from the past and improves upon it. 

As for the planned trip to Italy back in 2001, it all went well. I lost my job just before Christmas of that year. Two weeks later I started working for a chemical company. I had the opportunity to test the importance of preparation: To separate the signal from the noise, and take purposeful action to respond to the emergency and prepare for the future.

Most of my work today focuses on building resilient brands that can take positive action, building the steps for a better future. Throughout my career, I've learned that how we measure impact is, mostly, wrong.


I send out a chatty weekly email with links to resources to feel less lonely, lead better, and absorb some Italian style in good company.

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