Looking Around the Curve: Building Consensus around Proactive Crisis-Proofing

by Michael Teague

You and your team of Whisperers have identified a looming crisis your organization needs to prepare for — and now you need to build consensus around the response and solution.  How do you gain internal consensus around proactively addressing impending crises, particularly when not everyone in your organization sees what you see around the curve?

Here’s an example of how difficult and important consensus is for proactive crisis-proofing. I have been in the middle of conversations about electric vehicles and road funding for several years in Oklahoma. A large portion of road and bridge funding comes from motor vehicle fuel taxes collected at the pump. But EVs don’t go to the pump. Oklahoma does not have many EVs on the road yet — but as the number increases, the funding for roads for those vehicles is still needed. This isn’t a crisis right now, but it is around the curve. In my time as Oklahoma’s secretary of energy and environment, I was not able to build consensus among vehicle advocates, tax policy advocates, and the state legislature to get a solution in place. And because of that lack of consensus, the state isn’t prepared for a future with more EVs — which will be reality sooner or later.

Consensus isn’t somehow unique to government crisis-proofing. All businesses need to do the difficult, important work of building consensus to proactively solve a future crisis. And in the middle of the current crises, many businesses are fundamentally changing how they operate.

One business here in Tulsa had plans before COVID-19 to implement expensive new technologies over the next several years that would reduce their operational costs.  It would also require significant operational and personnel changes.  With input from across the organization, the leader decided to move up that schedule and turn this time of turmoil into a time of transition — accelerating preparations for the future so the organization will be poised to play offense, not defense.  His decision will have long-lasting positive benefits for the organization.  His challenge: not everyone in the organization is ready for that change.  To implement the correct decision, he is now building consensus across his organization.

Proactive Crisis-Proofing is Different. Preparing for a looming crisis is not your usual reactive decision making and implementation.  I find that most leaders are pretty good at reactive decision making: when presented with an issue, they can rally their organization to address it.  But looking around the curve is all about being proactive and that posture is outside of normal operations.  Like an aggressive defense, you want your organization leaning into proactive solutions – well before the crisis hits.  It takes a different approach.

Communicating Within Your Organization. You might have an existing crisis communications plan, but it likely doesn’t apply here.  Most crisis communications plans are designed for crisis response, target more of an external audience, and often are delegated to communications or marketing teams. To build consensus you need to be proactive, direct it internally, and you should lead the communications personally.  

To communicate this effectively, start with the fact that not everyone has seen the same info you have. You wanted your Whisperers to challenge you with insights into what is around the curve and to surprise you with the information they bring back to you.  Now you need to communicate the reason for these changes across your organization.  You also need to recognize that not everyone may be ready for change.  In vetting the crisis with your Whisperers, you confronted your own biases.  Now you may have to confront the bias of others within your organization. 

Implementation Options: How do you build a group to attack an impending crisis?  In my experience, implementing decisions like these can take a different group of people than your Whisperers.

  • Call on your roll-up-the-sleeves problem-solver types. As the Oklahoma secretary of energy and environment, I led the state’s Coordinating Council on Seismicity.  A major shift within that group occurred whenever a problem arose that the engineers of the council could sink their teeth into.  So make sure the engineers — or your organization’s equivalent — are a key part of implementation planning and execution.
  • Bring in expertise — but make sure they understand the urgency. You probably need to build a team with expertise in specific areas depending on the problem.  You might need engineers, accountants, lawyers, HR, command and control, etc. But you don’t need “experts” with long resumes who don’t know how to quickly solve problems.  
  • Consider forming a team from across peer organizations.  Making this move also goes back to vetting and the group that you use to bounce ideas. This could depend on whether you see this implementation as a competitive advantage or as something that you want to recruit others in your sector to join you.  As an example of the latter, many companies are currently developing environment, social, and governance (ESG) reports based on investor pressures and shareholder initiatives.  Would your crisis-proofing solution benefit from a “fusion cell” formed from companies across your sector to tackle a specific challenge like ESG reporting?  (Your Whisperers might have a good perspective on the answer to this question, because they’ve done reconnaissance with external peers and experts as part of identifying the crisis.)
  • Make sure they feel your urgency. It might mean you are in the meetings or you give them aggressive deadlines and you check in regularly.  They will know your urgency by the time you commit to it.

Transforming Your Organization and Its Culture through Looking around the Curve. In the end so much of looking around the curve comes down to the culture of an organization; the culture that you as the leader build.  It’s the Tulsa business leader looking to deploy new technology who starts by seeking input from his team.  It’s the energy sector leader that I greatly respect who told me that their organization’s successful work groups had an ingrained culture about anticipating problems and then proactively preparing to meet them.  Ultimately, looking around the curve needs to become everyone’s job and part of your organization’s DNA.

One approach to this goal might be to use your company safety culture as a model.  Many companies, particularly energy companies, do a great job of anticipating safety issues and building safety cultures.  Granted, it is much easier to understand the return on investment of a strong safety culture when the metrics are reduced accidents and less lost time.  It can be tougher to commit resources to prompt crisis-anticipating innovations that may look to many in your organization like dislocations.  But building from a strong safety culture may be a good starting point to spread this culture throughout your organization.

The very best teams have lots of eyes looking around the curve and leaders ready to lead into the future.

Have you read all five installments of Looking Around the Curve? If not, catch up on the full program for making your organization ready to see and plan for the next crisis. Please share Looking Around the Curve with your colleagues and as always, please send me your comments or feedback at michael@brasscompassconsulting.com.

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