Managing your Brexit Crisis

Brexit is not a seven day crisis; nor even seven week or seven month.

In fact, in a long career of crisis management, I have never seen its like. Yes, of course, there are immediate issues to be addressed.  In an utterly changed landscape, issues of confidence have Managing Crisissuddenly been unleashed.  Previously solid, secure, safe enterprises now find their very futures   questioned.  Staff look for reassurance on job security; lenders want to know that their exposure is still without risk; clients and customers need to be sure that delivery will in no way be impaired.  But in a time of churning, opaque uncertainty, messages of reassurance can easily sound more like whistling in the dark. As ever, credibility is king, and reassurance based on wishful thinking can do more harm than good.

But for many organisations, this will be merely the beginning.  Ahead lies the likelihood that a changed professional, societal, political and commercial universe will demand hard decisions and painful measures.  And each of these will need to be managed in such a way that they do not, in themselves, spread further uncertainty and alarm.

These days, most well-run organisations have their Crisis Management plans in place, but fewer have strategies for Acute Issues Management, and this is what will be needed now. Systems and strategies for issues monitoring and early identification, scenario planning, access to informed, objective external counsel, especially in areas such as legal risk, government affairs, and indeed, strategic crisis management can all be hugely important.

Stakeholder communications will also be uniquely difficult.  In most Crisis Management these can be planned in terms of the crisis event, and the management of a projected, intended future.  But here we are looking at the probability of wave after wave of unexpected events, each with the capability to shock, destabilise and re-direct.   Future uncertainty is a critical part of the crisis we now need to manage, and many of the usual tropes of management, control and direction will be wholly inadequate in this context.

Experience and well-honed judgement will be at a premium now. But there is a danger, too, that experience will become its own trap. For many organisations, the challenges that lie ahead will be unprecedented, and application of rules, procedures and responses that worked in more normal times will be simply inadequate.  Good management now will need more than at any time to show the ability to think outside the box; to move beyond immediate experience   Crisis is also a time when management teams can slip into Group Think, developing rigid, single-view, sclerotic positions and responses, hardening with each new challenge.  This, again, is a time when a knowledgeable, independent, sympathetic source of advice and comment can be of real value.  This may be a non-executive chairman.  It may be a trusted legal or strategic public relations advisor.  It may be a respected former colleague, perhaps retired but still current, close enough to advise with authority and understanding, but not so close as to become part of any settled internal perspective.

Difficult, challenging times.  But, change can bring opportunity too, and those organisations with effective Acute Issues Management strategies may find that they not only limit potential damage, but that they actually create areas of fresh opportunity.

Terence Fane-Saunders
June 2016