Dealing with crisis is what the military is designed to do. Based on experience, we develop drills for the most common crisis events – scripts that ensured we did not overlook critical steps in the heat of the moment. Still, extreme times call for extreme actions.
In the summer of 2009, US forces in eastern Afghanistan experienced multiple crises simultaneously. These events are captured in my book, PALE HORSE – Hunting Terrorists and Commanding Heroes with the 101st Airborne Division, but in the book, I did not explain in detail the mechanics of how we adapted our operations given the situation. In light of current events, I think it could be helpful for many business owners and senior executives if we explore those events in more detail.
In 2009, many of our combat outposts in eastern Afghanistan were air centric. That is to say, there were no roads to access them. The only way to resupply those outposts with ammunition, fuel, water, etc. was by air. This task alone was a full-time job for the aviation brigade. At the same time, we were ordered to send troops deep into Nuristan Province, to a small village named Barg-i Matal.
Barg-i Matal was a two-hour flight from my headquarters in Jalalabad. It sat in a remote valley with ridge lines on the east and west that reached 18,000+ feet above sea level. Enemy snipers constantly engaged our forces on the ground. The soldiers at Barg-i Matal fought daily, so supporting them in very complex terrain in a remote location was extremely challenging.
As if it were not challenging enough, on June 30, Private Bowe Bergdahl went missing. I was ordered to send crews and helicopters to assist in the search. Fighting and supporting operations at Barg-i Matal, resupplying remote outposts throughout Kunar Province, searching for Bergdahl, and executing routine missions daily was too much. We were stretched too thin, and simply could not do it all.
In light of this situation, we had to optimize, so we went into crisis management mode. In the years since, I have created names for many of the things we did in order to define it more clearly. We did not call it a crisis action center at the time, but that’s what we created. We did not have the resources to do everything, so we had to optimize given what we did have.
The COO at the brigade level led the effort. We staffed the cell with key individuals such as HR, logistics, intelligence, operations, etc. First, they clearly defined the problem. Next, they identified who needed to man the cell. With better clarity of what we must do, they listed all of the tasks that we must accomplish. Then they noted limitations and constraints.
Limitations are things we do not have. These were things out of our control. This might be capital or delivery trucks. For us it was helicopters, crews, and helicopter maintenance. Constraints were self-imposed. For example, we only flew into certain valleys if the moon illumination was less than 20%. That was a choice we made to mitigate the risk of being shot down. We could have said 50%, but we constrained our own actions to mitigate risk.
Next, we created a synchronization matrix (tool). This matrix listed all of the assets available (our pilots, crews, our helicopters by type etc.) and all the tasks or missions that must be accomplished on a timeline. The COO then led the effort to prioritize all of the tasks or mission sets. Finally, they placed assets against tasks. This enabled us to accomplish as much as possible given the limited amount of resources we had.
All of this synchronization was done using technology. My COO was in Jalalabad. The brigade-level COO was at Bagram. We were spread out all over eastern Afghanistan, so we had to leverage technology to plan and synchronize our efforts. The “Sync Meeting” was held each afternoon to synchronize our efforts and assign tasks for the following day. It was collaborative and it enabled us to optimize given the dire situation we found ourselves in.
Below, I have listed the steps for crisis management that we used
Phase 1 – Mobilize the Crisis Action Center (CAC)
- This should be a drill that you have rehearsed
- Who is in it? – The frontline employees like customer service, sales reps, account execs, marketing, and purchasing. Focus on the employees, customers and suppliers.
- What is each person’s role?
- What are the processes you use?
- When do you meet? The frequency may change based on the crisis and timelines associated with objectives.
- How do you meet?
- What’s the agenda?
- What are our tools?
Phase 2 – Analyze – Sun Tzu said, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” In the analyze phase, we take the time to clearly see ourselves, our challenges, and our objectives.
- Define the problem
- Develop the strategy & Define the Objectives (Get the Big Ideas right)
- Prioritize activities / objectives
- Inventory resources available
- List limitations & Constraints
Phase 3 – Decide – Place resources against priorities and charge individuals and departments with specific tasks. Key to your success will be your ability to clearly communicate strategy, objectives, and priorities throughout the breadth and depth of the organization. To achieve alignment, you must be able to accurately share your vision of what success looks like.
Phase 4 – Execute – Once execution begins, you must continuously assess. Transportation and supply chain will break down and people will get sick. Do not expect the plan to go perfectly. You must have the ability and agility to quickly adapt and call an audible when necessary.
Phase 5 – After action reviews or “Hot Wash.” When in crisis mode, take the time each day to review, learn, adapt, and grow. A simple formula is to answer these five questions:
- What did we say we were going to do?
- What actually happened?
- Why did it happen?
- What did we learn?
- What will we do to prevent it from happening again, or do we have a new best practice?
Once you get the CAC organized, don’t forget to rehearse. Periodically, leaders must rehearse a crisis. See if your people are properly trained. Do you have the bandwidth to execute your plan?
For five or six years after the attacks of 9/11, I was convinced that the vast majority of Americans thought that at some point it would all end and everything would go back to a norm that existed on September 10, 2001. In reality, that ship had sailed. Life as we knew it had fundamentally changed. We must consider now, how this event has changed us, society, and our businesses.
A few things to consider as we move forward:
- Should the CAC, remain a permanent function within the company? How can you incorporate the event and chaos into the existing strategy?
- Accept the new norm – a more remote workforce is here to stay.
- Daily, if not hourly service disruptions – adapt to rapid change.
- Increased virtual work – adopt technology aids and tools.
- Less standardized workday. Since more people will be working from home, standardized shifts or work hours will evolve.
- Employee work / life boundaries are blurred and need to be managed.
- Continue to harden new processes, methods, tools and communications.
- Companies may find sales teams are more effective working from home and not traveling as much.
- Can we more clearly answer the question, why do I need so many salespeople that travel? Look at managing future marketing and sales travel and event costs.
- Commercial office space will be hit very hard when leases are renewed, work from home will be a cheaper option.
- Companies will need to invest/harden remote workers – mobile devices & laptops, monitors, better home internet bandwidth, and secured home networks.
- Individual and Family Preparedness: Companies will need to educate their employees for having a home plan for food, water, key supplies.
- Reliability of offshore support and manufacturing. Is this function at a greater risk due to political, and economic influences?
- Will we require a rebalancing of wages, debt instruments, contracts, inventory management, insurance, etc.?
- The effort of the past twenty years with just in time inventory, virtual supply chain, critical suppliers for health supplies may require rethinking.
Hopefully, this will help you mentally frame how you might deal with the crisis you now face in your business, or the next one. If we at Exactus Advisors can be of assistance now or in the future, please reach out.