The Great Red Wine CAPER

document.write(" Geneva, Arial, Helvetica, SunSans-Regular, sans-serif; font-size: small;">By G. Mark Towhey

© 2001 G. Mark Towhey. All rights reserved. For reprint permission contact

Not long ago, my wife and I hosted some friends for dinner in our home. Ever the graceful athlete, I artfully managed to upset a bottle of fine Bordeaux onto our now not so light beige carpet. Two things resulted from this subtle, yet distinctly woody-flavored mishap.

First, we now have discovered some very nice original hardwood in the dining room that we didn't previously know was there. Hundreds of dollars in refinishing costs to follow.

Second, I discovered -- in crystal clear form -- a simple, yet elegant illustration of crisis management from start to finish.

What happens when we (meaning I) spill a bottle of red wine onto a "why-would-we-spend-extra-for-Stainguard?" carpet?

  • Step 1 -- Pick up the bottle as fast as possible. Throw your napkin onto the floor and try to sop up the red wine still sitting on the surface of the carpet. This, under the popular "might as well throw out the napkins, too" school of thought.
  • Step 2 -- Quickly discuss the extent of the damage. Recognize the heated "I told you stain protection was worth the hundred bucks" glare from spouse. Decide that we can try and get out some of the soaked-in stain with one of those stain-cleaner recipes I vaguely remember from parties gone by.
  • Step 3 -- Build consensus on the soda water and salt recipe, assign tasks and gather ingredients.
  • Step 4 -- Pour an entire bottle of soda water into the blood-red carpet spot and wonder how pouring water on a carpet can ever be the right thing to do. Sprinkle liberally with salt and wait. Blot with paper towel (now that your napkin's pink). Repeat as necessary.
  • Step 5 -- Open another bottle of wine and get back to now cold pork tenderloin. Resolve to revisit the wisdom of saving money by not accepting the $100 up sell to stain protect the carpet. Decide that, in future, white wine really is acceptable for all meals.

Interestingly, this process for managing the "red wine crisis" is virtually identical to the crisis management processes used by some of the world's best crisis managers: military forces, police services, fire departments, trauma centres, disaster response agencies, search and rescue organizations, public relations experts, etc.

Over the years, I've had the valuable good fortune to work with or for almost all of these types of organization. Each specializes in what they do. The way an infantry company attacks and wins a critical piece of real estate is not the same way a fire department extinguishes a house fire. The way a search manager directs the search for a child lost in the woods is not the same way a trauma centre manages a multiple casualty scenario.

However, while their tactics are different, their strategies are the same. In fact, there is a lot more in common than you may think in the way each of these crisis management organizations approaches and resolves the crises they face. Two of these important similarities are particularly "transportable" to almost any organization that may face any type of crisis -- big or small.

Lesson One: Avoid scenario-based plans

The first lesson to be learned from examining the way the most the most effective crisis managers achieve success, is that they generally do not create set-piece crisis response plans.

A common refrain, among managers tasked with creating a business continuity or crisis management plan, is: "give us the scenario!" It is natural for people to want various "what-if" scenarios outlined for them, so they can build a response plan to deal with each possibility. Many, many crisis management plans are designed this way. Is yours?

These "if 'X', then 'Y'" plans are attractive. Many senior executives like their worlds to be buttoned-down and firmly under their control. They want to know that, if the Duluth oil refinery explodes, then Joe Smith and Barbara Brown will immediately fly to the scene and establish a crisis operations centre. Meanwhile, Debbie Jones will issue a press release and call the Governor.

These "scenario-based" contingency plans share one common attribute. Almost all of them will fail.

What if Joe Smith was in the refinery when it exploded? What if Barbara Brown is away on maternity leave? What if Debbie Jones was promoted to regional vice-president the day before the explosion, and her replacement hasn't been hired yet?

In my experience with a number of widely different crises, I?ve found there is only one sure thing in any crisis: that the unexpected will occur.

There is a common truism in the military which transcends armed forces around the world and across the centuries: "Even the best of plans will not survive past H-Hour." Meaning: no plan will survive the onset of any crisis.

It is, essentially, impossible to envision every possible permutation of every possible scenario that could occur and create a set-piece plan to manage it.

So, is crisis planning even possible?

Absolutely. But, it's important to prepare for the right things. Prepare for uncertainty. Prepare for each crisis to be unique and unprecedented.

Learn from the world's best crisis managers. The military, the police, the fire department and other emergency management organizations share a common approach to crisis management training. They generally do not create set-piece plans. Instead, they develop flexible crisis management processes, or frameworks, and train their crisis managers to be able to rapidly assess the situation, solve problems and implement solutions. You can do this too.

Lesson Two: Manage your crisis in five distinct stages

The second lessoned learned from surveying the crisis management professions, is that there is a common strategy among all of them. Generally, each of them tries to manage their crises through five similar stages -- just like we managed the red wine crisis. We've broken down these stages as follows.

Stage 1 -- Containment. Taking immediate action to prevent the situation from growing worse.

Although crises are always different and unpredictable, there are many common elements that consistently occur in the initial stages of any crisis: there will be confusion, you will not have enough information, people within and outside the organization will want/need/demand to know what's going on; the situation will change rapidly; you will need to mobilize a response team; you will need to alert authorities; etc.

This is the stage you can plan for in some detail. As part of your crisis management process, you should pre-think the Containment stage, develop immediate response procedures and train people in them until they become instinctive. You really want to be able to start containing at the earliest possible moment, so that it doesn't get worse.

In the search and rescue world, this means establishing a perimeter so the lost person does not wander out of the search area while you're developing a search plan. This way, you can contain the search area to a manageable size. Every hour the lost person wanders, the search area increases logarithmically in size.

In the corporate world, this often means developing emergency notification priorities, keeping up to date call-trees, developing policies to ensure all external inquiries are referred to a single corporate spokesperson, etc.

Once you've contained the situation so that it will not keep getting worse, you will have bought yourself a little time to assess the situation.

Stage 2 -- Assessment. Finding out what's wrong and gathering the information needed to fix it.

Emergency management organizations teach their crisis managers to think on their feet. It's important to have a process in place, and skilled people available, to gather information and assess the situation. Every crisis will be different. You will need to identify what information is required and gather it, interpret it, and draw conclusions.

Your focus, in this stage, is on finding the crucial information needed to make decisions, identify your options and create a plan.

Stage 3 -- Planning. Making a specific plan to resolve each specific crisis.

Every crisis will be different and every crisis will require a different resolution. Don't expect to be able to pull "Plan B" off the shelf and just use it. You will need to make a new plan for each specific crisis. Build this planning stage and the capabilities it requires into your overall crisis management procedure.

This is not to say that having "Plan B" on the shelf is useless. Far from it. Having ready-made plan components can save crucial time during a crisis. However, they will inevitably have to be re-packaged, re-configured, or otherwise re-adjusted "on the fly."

Stage 4 -- Execution. Taking action and "doing" the plan.

Once you've contained the problem, assessed the situation and made a plan the time will come when you have to do something. This is the "fixing the problem" stage and it only starts once you've developed a plan.

Stage 5 -- Reorganization and Review. Getting "back to normal" and preparing for the next time.

As hard as it may be to believe during the thick of the action, every crisis will eventually end. But, there's no guarantee that you'll have much respite before the next one begins. It's important to the long-term survivability of your organization that you are able to quickly return to normal, restock emergency equipment and supplies.

It's also critically important that you build into your crisis management procedure a time to gather together and reflect on what happened. What worked well? What didn't work at all? What can you learn about this experience to prevent future occurrences, resolve them more effectively, minimize the damage, improve results?

No silver bullets

This five-stage process which we call the C.A.P.E.R. Crisis Management Method, TM is certainly not the silver bullet of crisis management. Nor, does it represent less work than the more common process of detailed "if/then" planning. In fact, it will likely be much more work. However, I believe it is also much, much more effective than the scenario-based approaches many organizations currently use.

We can learn a lot from the unique approaches to crisis management pioneered by emergency management specialists, police forces and militaries around the world. The strategic approach they use to resolve the world's biggest and most dangerous crises is entirely translatable to public image crises and other less-deadly emergencies.

The key to effective crisis management is twofold:

  1. Avoid reliance on set-piece plans that will become ineffective as soon as one of your assumptions fails.
  2. Build a crisis management process that anticipates unpredictability and puts in place trained people, critical resources and tested procedures to contain, assess, plan and execute the necessary response. Then, be able to quickly reorganize your resources, review what happened and learn how to do better next time.

So, the next time you spill red wine on the carpet at home -- think about your approach to managing that crisis. You may learn something you can use at work!

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