No. 13 The Crisis, or ‘It’s a big trough and I want my snout in it’

You know that feeling – a dawning realisation that someone, somewhere has stuffed up mightily, and that there is going to be hell to pay?

Well the good news is that a crisis is a peculiarly human invention. Indeed, strictly speaking, it is entirely and exclusively a human affair. The other piece of good news, for the freelance consultant, is that every crisis is a massive opportunity. From the freelance point of view a crisis is a splendid example of ‘The Mess’ (see previous article on freelance consulting).

A crisis is a very different thing from a natural disaster like a flood or earthquake. While any kind of natural or man-made disaster will offer opportunities to the astute freelancer, the crisis offers an embarrassment of riches due to its uniquely human aspects. A disaster can precipitate a crisis for the unprepared executive, but a disaster is not, in and off itself, a crisis.

A crisis is caused by the executive failing to deal adequately with a disaster whether natural or man-made. It follows that an executive who deals quickly and effectively with a disaster will not precipitate a crisis. Essentially, what the freelancer is looking for, is a failure of confidence in the ability of those tasked with dealing with a disaster, to deal with it effectively. This is your opportunity to swan in with a quick fix.

Recent examples of political crises might include the Brexit Vote (June 2016), the emergence of Donald Trump as the front runner in the Republican presidential nomination race, or the collapse of the Australian Liberal Party’s vote in the recent general election. Commercial crises of recent note include the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the VW car ‘defeat’ software that falsified carbon emissions, and the endless and repetitive corruption scandals afflicting banks and the financial sector.

All these events have become crises because the powers that be, and in particular the powers that popular opinion believed should have dealt with the underlying issues, singularly failed to do so. The fall of the UK conservatives David Cameron and Boris Johnson as well as Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, and the leadership challenges about to engulf Malcolm Turnbull in Australia, are all directly caused by the failure of these ‘leaders’ to understand and deal with the underlying causes of the disasters which have befallen them.

The push in Australia for a Royal Commission into banking corruption is a perfect example of how a commercial crisis can become a political crisis if both sets of executives fail utterly to deal with the underlying problem.

In the business context a disaster happens, but only results in a crisis when management fails to address the issue adequately. So crises in commercial and organisational settings are always and everywhere due to a failure of management (N.B. $$$).

The failing executive will of course seek to deflect the blame – onto the economy, onto more junior employees or even competitors, but this is merely sleight of hand. The truth will always be that the disaster has triggered a crisis because the underlying disaster has not been dealt with effectively. For the freelancer, it is essential to remain fully aware of this fact while absolutely ignoring it. Focus instead on suitable deflections, shallow solutions, and broader targets for blame.  If you can come up with a plausible solution that will enable the failed executive to keep his or her job you are laughing.

So for all executives, everywhere, I offer this word of advice: When disaster strikes, ask yourself how best to handle the matter to avoid a crisis. Decent continuity planning and risk management will help you prepare for the foreseeable, but when the unforeseeable happens, and it will happen, remember that clear thinking and honest leadership are your key to avoiding a crisis.

That said, and in the sure and certain knowledge that only one in a million executives will heed my advice, I will just remind the freelance consultant that a crisis frees up cash, lots and lots of cash, which it is incumbent upon someone to spend – well it might as well be you, right?

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