Managing crises using systems thinking – APCO’s Nic Labuschagne

Traditional methods of crisis management and preparedness are process-driven. Today, this approach is not enough, writes Nic Labuschagne, senior director – strategy, APCO Worldwide

Nic Labuschagne, senior director – strategy, APCO Worldwide

The world we live in has become too complex for many of us to understand, let alone manage. Many of the problems we now have to deal with simply defy the traditional approach of breaking the problem down into small, solvable parts, and then putting it all back together. In fact, this approach quite often seems to have unintended consequences, making what was a messy problem even messier. Systems thinkers call these types of problems, wicked problems. It doesn’t mean that they have evil personalities, although it may sometimes feel like it. Wicked problems are problems that are so complex that they cannot be solved; they can however be managed by adopting the approach of making repeated small interventions, each time monitoring the outcomes, and readjusting accordingly. This approach requires a good understanding of systems thinking.

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Changing the way we approach and deal with complex problems sounds simple enough, but the real challenge lies with the lack of a critical mass of suitably trained people in positions of influence. Our government and private sector institutions have historically run efficiently using well-established frameworks of policies and procedures. Policymakers need a clear link between policy implementation and the desired outcomes, and businessmen regard certainty, or at least predictability, as a key requirement to reduce business risk. Best practice policies and procedures helped to achieve this.

However, in today’s world, the winners will be those who can lead their organisations to cultivate a nervous system that can deal with complexity and is resilient against unpredictable crises. It will require a management revolution where systems thinking will lead the way.  

Managing crises by thinking ahead

Traditional methods of crisis management and preparedness are process-driven: analyse the situation, assess the risks, design measures to mitigate the risks, and train the crisis managers to be ready to handle the crises should they occur. Today, this approach is not enough. The digital news cycle is always-on, and crises move at lightning speed. 

It is vital to have some form of predictive risk management in place so that you can identify and read the weak signals from risks that may transform into full-blown crises and take the appropriate steps to mitigate the impact or avoid them entirely. In order to do this effectively, you need to thoroughly understand your stakeholder ecosystem – what issues are important to them, and how those issues may impact you. You need to have an AI-supported monitoring system in place, one that can analyse vast amounts of data, sniff out the weak signals, and monitor those signals over time to see whether they are weakening or strengthening. Human evaluation still plays a critical role, and this is where systems thinking comes in. The ability to understand how the emerging risk may impact stakeholder ecosystems and your own environment is the foundation for putting in place the appropriate crisis preparedness measures. Failure to identify and prepare for emerging issues that suddenly ignite into full-blown crises can have catastrophic consequences.

Organisations need to have a point of view and a position on issues such as diversity, environmental sustainability, and work-life balance. Not doing so runs the risk of alienating a significant portion of both your workforce and your customer base, with major economic consequences. We’ve seen this in the rise of thoughtful (and not so thoughtful) corporate responses to social injustices around the world – a phenomenon unique in the era where CEOs are constantly under a microscope. Having predictive issues management in place supports a strategy of getting ahead of crises before they erupt, demonstrating empathetic and compassionate leadership in the midst of uncertainty.

The Role of AI-Enabled Tools in Crisis Management

Using predictive risk analysis means that you have to be tapped into a lot of conversations around the world. Thankfully, AI can do the heavy lifting by enabling us to sift through these conversations to read weak signals that indicate potential emerging issues. Predictive analytics, social listening, hazard map development – all these tools have the ability to scan millions upon millions of online data that may be relevant to your stakeholders. It can provide insights on whether a specific policy is being mentioned more than usual on social media, whether your brand is a topic of conversation in specific communities, or even if there is a spike of police reports near your offices. 

Supplementing traditional crisis management with these innovations gives us the agility digital platforms provide. That said, it’s important to understand that this will not replace the current crisis communications handbook. Experienced crisis specialists will be key in reading situations and guiding the digital wizards who are analysing the data and disseminating content on a range of digital platforms. Marrying these two capabilities, however, is easier said than done. If you are not open to other new ways of thinking, then it will only cause conflict for you and within your organisation. 

How Leaders Can Adapt This Mindset

The first step is to face reality. Leaders today need to become aware that the old way of thinking needs to change. A quick look at the global challenges we currently face and the dismal way in which both governments and the private sector have responded give some indication of the magnitude of the problem. Wicked problems cannot be solved – only managed. For many business leaders, this may be counterintuitive to their management style because they want certainty. They want problems to be solved. This is a call for them to look at the world through a different lens, not an expectation that they should entirely change the way they run their organizations. 

Using this approach with your crisis management team will be key to keeping a finger on the pulse of fast emerging issues and mapping out those that are important to you and your stakeholders. Crisis experts schooled in systems thinking combined with team members who can master AI-enabled tools are the ideal mix of competencies you need to deliver leading-edge crisis management for your organisation.

Ultimately, it’s about understanding how today’s technology can help you enhance your current management style to lead with systems thinking. While AI is still at a very early stage, it can help you create resilient processes to effectively respond to crises in a strategic, thoughtful, and empathetic manner. As we navigate an increasingly unstable world, leaders are in a unique position where they must constantly prove themselves. If they don’t embrace new ways of thinking, each crisis will feel like a fatal blow, and eventually, one of them will be.