The COVID-19 pandemic is not something that an organisation can easily put its arms around or define boundaries for. It is a multifaceted and fluid system of systems in which we will see peaks and troughs of infection and response; some of this is predictable and can be modeled with reasonable accuracy, however much will be highly-unpredictable in terms of locations, severity, frequency and amplitude. New and diverse organisational, political, societal, and economic vulnerabilities will emerge and evolve. Impacts will incubate and morph over time as will political and organisational responses.

Traditional concepts and practices of risk management will be stretched to their limits, then adapted and customised. We like to talk in terms of readiness, response and recovery when helping clients address their threats and risks. The time for readiness has gone, response mechanisms are now in overdrive. Some of these mechanisms will be completely shattered, causing a return to the classic principles of understanding the nature of uncertainty and risk, and a need to rebuild from the ground upwards.

Effective responses require good information

Information - contextualised, relevant, and actionable - is the vital component if crisis response actions are to have a chance of success. Understand what can be reliably modelled and predicted. When were tipping points reached for organisations and regions? But also recognise the importance of political, societal and demographic context when trying to identify patterns and lessons; the South Korea, China and Italy experiences for example. While comparisons can be made, these national models cannot simply be dragged and dropped when assessing trajectory and the efficacy of responses.

Use the intelligence cycle as a start point: define what you need to know and when, which trusted and credible sources to use and avoid the extraneous noises that cloud understanding and cause confusion. When you get the information, analyse and present it in a way that helps decision makers arrive at informed judgments, whether that is on the impact on a particular supply chain, or demand side client segment, or on your own people.

Visualisation and analytical tools assist greatly. Think about bringing your trusted third-party risk and political advisers into your crisis management team. Comprehensive Information updates should be the start point for any crisis management team meeting.

This is different: prepare for the long haul

In many cases, crisis management structures and processes have been built around a relatively vanilla set of contingencies. These are often characterised as being of relatively short duration and limited in scope and geography. They are often reflective of scenarios that appear on corporate risk registers. Aims and objectives are set to arrive at the desired outcome and lawyers and PR agencies will feature heavily as organisations seek to limit damage, both tangible and intangible.

We are now of course in very different territory. Defining an outcome with any degree of confidence is highly problematic in the context of COVID-19. The nature of the events that will require addressing as either short, medium, or long-term issues are complex, and the membership of crisis management teams will need to be revisited. Greater involvement of external subject matter experts will be required.

We should also not forget the potential impact of fatigue and stress on crisis management teams and for feelings of disengagement or impotence that may arise from long periods of isolation with no clear end in sight. All this will require imagination and determination to overcome as well as strong leadership from the top.

Recovery is the aim of response

As management teams get on top of the day-to-day rhythm of supporting their organisations, some are now turning to recovery considerations, in far ranging ways. Making informed assessments of the indicators and triggers that may signpost significant changes in the situation is critical. Looking at supply chains and when they may come back online, how they may need to be structured to reduce risk, what will the demand-side look like, when restrictions may ease, and how to return to full scale operations, in whatever format that may be.

To get on the front foot, we must start to look at how the threat and risk environment may look and build resilience for what is likely to be a much changed commercial, economic and social environment. We must also factor in the potential for resurgences of COVID-19, which will now loom large on all future corporate risk registers.

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