A Crisis is a Terrible Thing to Waste

With a little planning and a lot of commitment, writes Russ Linden, a crisis can produce significant changes in the status quo.
by | May 23, 2007

The word "crisis" is an interesting one, because it evokes such radically different responses:

o To an elected official, it's a mixed bag: a chance to look strong, to create a lasting image in the constituents' minds, but it's also a huge risk if things go poorly.

o To most civil servants, crises are best avoided; they consume time, derail other priorities, and rarely seem to benefit one's career or programs.

o To someone in the media, it is a godsend. Crises offer opportunities to describe high drama, portray heroes, victims and scapegoats in vivid colors, knowing that many will follow closely what one is saying or writing.

And what about public-sector managers? They most probably view crises the way other civil servants do: high costs, hugely disruptive, little if any gain.

Paul Romer, a Stanford economist, offers government managers a very different view of emergencies and crises. As Romer sees it, "a crisis is a terrible thing to waste." This view, a takeoff on the wonderful line in United Negro College Fund ads ("A mind is a terrible thing to waste"), forces us to look beyond the immediate challenge inherent in crises to look for the opportunities.

Romer's point is a powerful one. When an emergency hits, a number of opportunities emerge:

o Resources become available

o The priorities are clear

o Rigid rules and regulations suddenly become pliable

o Leaders pay attention and are accessible

o Change, even far-reaching change, is possible

Romer is most certainly not suggesting that managers create (or make up) crises; people see through that quickly. Rather, he's pointing out the potential to do things that weren't possible before, and may not be possible again for years, when genuine crises hit. Hurricane Katrina offers an enormous example: Will New Orleans officials make far-reaching changes in the city's failing school systems? Will they reduce the number of police forces in the city (there were eight prior to Katrina!) and get them to truly work together? Will its leaders be prepared to quickly evacuate people next time there's a flood?

One of the keys to acting on Romer's insight is to be ready when crises hit. That's why emergency management officials frequently conduct "table top" exercises and other simulations; you don't want to be meeting people and developing plans in the middle of an emergency.

Another key is to look for opportunities when crises involve someone else. Here's a compelling example:

It was October 20, 2002, and the D.C. snipers were still at large, creating fear among millions of people who live in Maryland, the District of Columbia, and northern and central Virginia. Fourteen people had been killed, and law enforcement agencies in dozens of jurisdictions were working overtime on it. Jay Gregorius, an assistant special agent in charge at the Drug Enforcement Administration was looking for a way to help. Tracking down snipers isn't part of DEA's mission, but Jay is passionate about the importance of collaboration. So he called the sheriff of Stafford County, Virginia, a rural county near some of the attacks.

"I didn't know the sheriff at the time," Jay recalled, "but I wanted to help. I figured he must be stretched to the limit because of the fear and media exposure given to the sniper. Besides, I live in Stafford County. So I called him and explained that I had many agents on staff, we're trained law enforcement officers, we carry guns, and that we'd do anything to help. He wasn't used to getting this kind of call. But he told me that his deputies were spending a lot of time sitting at freeway exits off I-95, and that when the next attack came (if it was along the I-95 corridor), his deputies would close every exit ramp and inspect every vehicle.

"I said that we'd help with that task. In fact, our agents would do whatever he needed. Further, our guys would take orders from him and his deputies; we'd be in a support role. Well, local officials don't usually hear that from the feds, but he accepted and the next day our agents (including me) were at the freeway exits working shifts with the sheriff's deputies.

"The snipers were caught a few days later, so this didn't go on too long. But my agents really liked working with the sheriff's deputies. The sheriff, of course, was delighted. Since that time, he and I have a great relationship; he'd do anything for me, and vice versa. That's one way I've learned to build relationships."

When most people learned about the sniper attacks, their natural reactions were outrage and fear. When Jay Gregorius learned of the attacks, he saw a chance to help someone in a crisis, an opportunity to foster relationships.

How do you deal with crises?

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