Hugo Marynissen is managing director and partner at PM Risk-Crisis-Change, a consultancy firm specializing in risk and crisis management. He is responsible for the communication modules in our Master in Public Management and our postgraduate Public & Social Profit Management program. His expertise was gained through the Master in Change Management he acquired in Paris and Oxford in 2007, his doctorate in risk communication from Cranfield University and the many hands-on risk and crisis projects he works on. We asked him what crisis management really looks like today, especially in the health-care industry.
Crisis management consists of three elements: operational action, policy development and crisis communication. Operational action means more than just stamping out the problem at the moment of crisis. Policy refers to the corporate strategic mind-set with an eye on continuity. Crisis communication concerns all communication with involved parties at the height of the crisis and afterward. Together they make sure that a crisis is handled adequately. Hugo says: “We always refer to this in terms of the golden triangle: When one of these elements is off-balance, there is a realistic chance your crisis management will fail.”
"The big challenge within the healthcare sector lies in setting up national crisis teams so that, in times of crisis, you find yourself supported by colleagues in crisis expertise.”
The health-care industry has particular requirements. “Crisis communication in the health-care sector is special because they work from an ‘obligation of means’ – that is, they are required to dedicate a certain level of resources to achieve a result – instead of an ‘obligation of result,’ where the only requirement is to achieve the desired outcome. This means more people and emotions are in the mix then in other organizations.” It is even more crucial, then, to have as efficient an approach as possible. “The big challenge within the healthcare sector lies in setting up national crisis teams so that, in times of crisis, you find yourself supported by colleagues in crisis expertise.” This approach proved to be effective during, for example, the terrorist attacks in Zaventem and Brussels in March 2016.
From the perfect-world paradigm to the normal-chaos paradigm
There are two ways of looking at crisis management. You can start with the idea that you can map out every single risk and calculate the impact. “Experience, however, teaches us that no crisis unfolds according to the scenario. There are always multiple elements in play simultaneously.” If you follow this vision, you set out from the perfect-world paradigm. “You think that you can manage everything perfectly by mapping it out upfront. As a consequence, you create a false feeling of security because you believe you’ve covered all your bases.”
"The only thing our teams need is good training, sufficient freedom and a clear objective. This will ensure more success in crisis management than when you work according to a scenario.”
A second position begins with chaos theory. This is the view to which Hugo subscribes, and it works from the theory that chaos is normal. “In everyday life, things continually go wrong, but usually everything turns out well. The only thing you can do to deal adequately with a crisis is to make sure that you have a solid work method for all three parts of crisis management.” When every team knows what it has to do and what others should be doing, they can function purposefully and autonomously. “The only thing our teams need is good training, sufficient freedom and a clear objective. This will ensure more success in crisis management than when you work according to a scenario.”
Time for a mental turning point
Hugo wants to change organizations’ approach to crisis management and enable more of them to work from the normal-chaos paradigm by demonstrating that crisis management today is an continuous process. “Change trajectories aren’t completed in five minutes, and they won’t be in a moment of crisis. We have to work together and dare to change our organization. The turbulent times we live in demand that we think it through. Any moment, someone with bad intentions can step into a hospital, or the Minister for Health has to take drastic measures, or we can become a victim of cybercrime. The environment is so unstable that stable organizations are an illusion.”
"Change trajectories aren’t completed in five minutes, and they won’t be in a moment of crisis. We have to dare to change our organization. The turbulent times we live in demand that we think it through."
Often, we don’t see a crisis coming, even though, looking back, there were clear signs that it was going to emerge. “You can compare it to the incubation period of a virus. Afterward, we go looking to attribute blame, but usually there are various decisions leading to the crisis. The question you need to ask is not ‘Who did something wrong?’ but ‘How was it possible that this could go wrong, that we didn’t detect this earlier on?’ When you look at it like that, you analyze the systems, the company processes and the way your organization is built. It is only when you tackle those problems that you’ll get ahead.”
Zorgnet-Icuro has taken on the responsibility of connecting the various parties to each other. Teams shouldn’t just comprise members of staff, but also carefully chosen experts from other organizations. “Many care centers are, after all, too small to deal adequately with a crisis. Nobody knows better about those inadequacies then the people in the sector themselves.” Because of these sector-specific factors and their mission to connect health-care institutions, Zorgnet-Icuro and PM Risk-Crisis-Change are organizing a small symposium, called “Crisis in small and large-scale health-care institutions.”
"Nobody knows better about those inadequacies then the people in the sector themselves.”
Go to the booth of Antwerp Management School, engage in a conversation with Hugo Marynissen and discover his new book. After this symposium, you will return to your organization with the necessary theoretical background and tips for implementation.