It’s decision-making, stupid! He would never have put it in those words, but my old boss thought that when it came to crisis management, decision-making was the rock on which so many crisis management teams foundered. And by this he meant not only taking the right decisions but taking them at the right time.
You might have the best plans, the best team but at some point, difficult decisions have to be taken and to use an old political slogan once you decide you divide. It can be lonely at the top.
On these pages we’ve looked before at what is sometimes called ‘analysis paralysis’. This is where a crisis leader feels impelled to gather more and more information but is never satisfied with the amount or quality of the data and thus never takes a decision.
To prove there really is nothing new under the sun and that procrastination has been around for a while, I want to take you back to 1908 and look at what was supposed to be a mildly humorous book by Cambridge academic FM Cornford. It’s titled ‘Microcosmographia Academia’ and was marketed as a ‘Guide for the young academic politician’. Frankly to a modern reader it is not exactly a bundle of laughs and terrible sexism exists on its pages, but the author does make three compelling arguments as to why hard choices are so often postponed, even when it is clear action has to be taken.
The first rule of inaction he calls the ‘Wedge’. This is where you don’t do anything now for fear of raising expectations that you will take better decisions in the future – expectations you’re worried you won’t meet. Known commonly as being caught between a rock and a hard place.
Then there is the principal of ‘Dangerous Precedent’ which is where you shouldn’t take a decision that is probably correct for fear that in the future you wouldn’t have the courage to take a different course of action that seems to contradict the first. In modern political terms I suppose this is the fear of the kamikaze U-turn. The wily Cornford puts it this way: “Every public action which is not customary, either is wrong, or, if it is right, is a dangerous precedent”. Once again, your best bet is to sit on your hands.
Finally, we come to his concept of ‘Unripe time’ The idea here is that your decision is basically correct but it’s time hasn’t come. Reasons not to take drastic action get more compelling in a crisis but a failure to act is likely to make matters worse. That is why we at Crisis Solutions advocate decision points – times at which certain decisions have to be taken come what may.
Cornford points out that now is never the perfect moment to take a decision, there will always be reasons to delay and then suddenly it’s too late. “Time,” he warns us, “has a trick of going rotten before it is ripe.”