Whether you have a general crisis management plan or not, creating one for the COVID-19 crisis can be a relatively straightforward exercise by following these steps.
If you're a reasonably well-prepared organization, you likely have a dusty binder or two containing your business continuity or crisis management plan. However, you probably did not anticipate the coronavirus, a global illness that would fundamentally restructure everything from working arrangements, to supply chains, to a 180-degree turn in the economy, all over the course of days.
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You're likely to feel a bit flat-footed or overwhelmed, but this is the very nature of crisis management. If we all had an impeccably well-planned coronavirus response plan we'd no longer be in crisis mode, so as you draft your crisis management plan take comfort in the fact that we're all in uncharted territory here. Creating rapid, flexible responses and adjusting as you go is the very nature of crisis management. Take a deep breath, realize that we're all in a similar boat, and use the following steps to guide your response.
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1. Determine your guiding principles
Before you start soliciting team members, procuring "War Rooms," and drawing up plans, take a moment to discuss the two or three key principles that will guide your response plan. Ask your team questions about what is most important during this crisis. Is it keeping your people safe and secure? Do you supply a critical product that must be manufactured and shipped? Are you in a precarious position where cash must be preserved at all costs? Having frank and open discussions about what's truly important during this crisis will guide decision-making in the heat of battle and avoid trying to focus on too many things at once.
If you're creating a crisis response specific to IT, ensure your planning dovetails with the guiding principles that the organization has established, or use the opportunity to trigger a discussion about what's important. You'll have limited time and resources, so understanding where to deploy them most effectively is critical and worth what may seem like a cerebral discussion; it's a discussion that will pay dividends down the road.
2. Sacrifice the perfect for the good enough
Too many organizations strive for perfection in their planning and execution. In times of crisis, the "good enough" usually is, indeed, good enough. A timely half-baked response will often be better than the perfect response that comes days or weeks later.
3. Take inventory
Your organization may already have an all-purpose crisis management plan, or perhaps specific plans for communications, business continuity, disaster recovery, or even incident-specific plans for things like natural disasters or terrorist attacks. There's no use reinventing the wheel for your COVID-19 response, so grab whatever existing plans your organization has available, and adapt as you go.
Also take stock of the communication tools you have or can quickly access to facilitate communication among the crisis response team. While your organization may not have invested in remote working capabilities in the past, tools like Zoom and GoToMeeting are available on the cloud, and if you already use Microsoft's Office 365, Google's G Suite or similar, you may already have a slew of tools available that you're not using. Failing that, FaceTime, Skype, or good old-fashioned group calls are fine for now. Use your response team to test some of these tools so you can provide best practices to your teams later.
4. Wrangle the team and establish a RACI
Quickly establish who will be leading your coronavirus response team and create a RACI diagram. RACI stands for Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, and Informed, and the diagram is a simple list of people on the team in the first column, and key functions in the header row. For functions, add items like:
- Sending company-wide communications
- Setting short-term technology policy
- Purchasing software/hardware
- Etc. (specific to your company's needs)
In each cell of the diagram, note whether the person is R – Responsible, A – Accountable, C – Consulted, or I – Informed for that area. Creating, sharing, and regularly updating this diagram will clearly delineate who is responsible for which elements of your crisis response, reduce unnecessary review cycles, and streamline who actually can provide input or decision-making authority. It will also help prevent a half-dozen conflicting emails going out to the entire company, which will create uncertainty and potential panic among your employees.
5. Activate communications
Your organization hopefully has an active communications plan in place to keep employees apprised of what's going on. Ensure your team is integrated into this plan on two fronts:
- Helping deliver communications through the appropriate tools
- Providing technical guidance for employees who are using unconventional working techniques, such as working remotely.
If your company doesn't have a communications plan, provide some guidance and ensure communications are regular, forthright, and informative. It's OK to share that you don't have all the answers, as long as that's paired with activities that you're employing to keep the company moving and keep employees safe and informed.
6. Activate (and potentially create) your unconventional working plan
As a technology leader, you may need to create a response for everything from employees who are working from home for the first time, to how to sanitize technology devices from terminals to timeclocks in warehouses and factories that must be kept operating. Let your guiding principles direct where you focus first, and start with the resources and tools you have already. If you have a subset of employees who already work remotely, see if you can extend the tools that they're using, or activate tools you already own, like Office 365 or G Suite. In the immediate term, consider relaxing some of your IT policies and allow employees to identify tools that may help. Consider "crowdsourcing" best practices for remote working, which is as simple as calling any vendors that frequently use remote work to ask for their tips, to setting up an email hotline or regular videoconference where employees can share tips and techniques.
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Regularly reassess how your plan is working, and update your guidance to employees and policies as you progress. Start with a triage mentality, whereby you tackle the biggest problems and obstructions to working first, and revisit the less crucial cases later.
7. Start your continuity planning
If you have an existing business continuity or recovery plan, use that as a baseline for your coronavirus business continuity planning. There are two key components as related to the coronavirus, short- and longer-term planning. In the short term, you'll need to develop a plan to keep key employees working and ensure key data are not being put at risk due to unconventional working techniques. Your goal is to avoid key data getting lost in the shuffle that comes with rapidly changing work logistics.
SEE: How COVID-19 is disrupting the enterprise and what you can do about it (TechRepublic Premium)
In the longer term, consider how you'll create a more robust unconventional working plan as well as how you'll start to transition back to a more traditional working environment. The timelines for these events will be difficult to predict and should be based on the advice of experts and your guiding principles, but ideally you'll have a more orderly and thoughtful approach to returning to work than the time-crunched transition.
As you refine your crisis planning, and gradually transition from triage mode to more proactive planning, you can shift your focus to optimization and recovery, and begin devoting some of your attention back toward growth and strategic priorities rather than crisis management. Be prepared to rapidly shift back into crisis mode as needed, but avoid the urge to remain so focused on the moment at hand that you ignore the light at the end of tunnel.
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