Your Emergency Management Team Has a Strategy Whether You Like It or Not
Ain’t life tough, tho?
As an emergency manager, you’ve got a huge job to do...but you don't have nearly enough resources to do it with
You pry away the valuable time of executives, managers, and staff all across your organization
...building resilience for the inevitable next disaster
...while struggling against the fierce headwinds of competing priorities, high expectations, and ever-increasing risk
All the while, that little voice in your head tells you that all of this is somehow your fault
...not only because you chose to pursue a career in emergency management (instead of going to law school as your mother told you)
...but because you are abysmally bad when it comes to justifying your existence
You are your own worst enemy.
You can't explain to the boss why what you do is important
You can’t answer the “why’ question: “Why do we need a stand-alone emergency management department?
“Isn’t that what [the police department] or [the security department] or [risk management] does?”
Your strategy, your “why”, can be seen in the actions that you and your people take. Because strategy is simply what you choose to do and not do all day and every day.
It doesn’t matter if your goals are explicit or not. It doesn’t matter if they evolved organically over time, without any thought or debate.
The stuff you do may even be completely ineffective in achieving your goals. You have a strategy nonetheless
You are either a servant or a tyrant
Researchers at the University of Toronto tell us that these kinds of “unintentional strategies” result in one of two types of teams:
1. The “Do Everything That Everyone Else Wants” Team (aka the “Servile Strategy”)
The Servile Strategy arises from a belief that you serve at the pleasure of your boss or the key departments in your organization (e.g., “The boss determines the strategy; we just support her”)
Emergency management departments that adopt the servile strategy try to be all things to all people, from tabletop exercises for executives in the C-suite to tactical training for the boots on the ground
The result is disillusionment and disappointment as overworked emergency management teams spread their resources too widely and serve nobody particularly well. Instead, they fall into reactive mode, losing influence within the organization and effectiveness during the disaster. These kinds of teams struggle to recruit and retain talent because no one wants to be on a team that everyone believes to be weak and ineffective
The Servile Strategy is miserable for those on the “Do Everything That Everyone Else Wants” Team, so it’s no wonder that many teams adopt a radically different approach
2. The “Do What We Want” Team (aka the Imperial Strategy)
With the Imperial Strategy, emergency managers put the front and center of their own needs and pay little attention to how they align with the needs of other departments or the overall strategy of their organization. The hospital department that focuses exclusively on tactical training for nurses, for instance, or a business continuity team that builds a huge apparatus around risk assessment and then looks for ways to insert itself into corporate decision-making wherever it can
The result is an emergency management department that serves itself rather than its stakeholders, much as a monopoly business would. The “Do What We Want” Team falls prey to the worst tendencies of traditional monopolies: arrogance and overreach
And like most monopolies, it will inevitably experience a backlash
How to create an intentional strategy
So you have a strategy whether you like it or not
And you owe it to your organization and your team to reject the unintentional approach in favor of clear, focused, and explicit choices that strengthen the capabilities that make your team a critical part of the success of your overall organization
Before you can create a strategy, though, you must first define the problem:
You should convene your team for some hard thinking and honest assessment. What is the current strategy of your department, as reflected in the choices that you make every day? Are you Servile or Imperial, or something else?
Next, discuss the strategic priorities of the rest of your organization, and how your team can best support them. Are you helping the enterprise develop resilience and the muscle memory it needs to execute in a disaster? Are you serving those that are key to that success?
Where will you play?
Time is your most precious asset and the choices about how you spend it must be clear to everyone on the team. Start with who you spend it with. You must identify your primary customers inside the organization and your core offering to these customers
For instance, you can choose to serve front-line employees (e.g., with tactical training), department managers (e.g., with business continuity planning and exercising) or leadership (e.g., with executive tabletop exercises, order of succession planning, etc). It may be that all of these groups are important stakeholders, but you must determine the core consumer with whom you seek to win
How will you win?
Determining your core offering and customers are the first steps on the road to the "why”. The build-out of your strategy includes knowing what would have to be true for that strategy to be successful. Your strategy must articulate the capabilities and systems required to accomplish the mission along with what things your team should do itself and what it should outsource
Case Study: Healthcare
To model this process we present the example of a fictional emergency management department of a large and diverse healthcare system with acute-care hospitals, ambulatory care sites, and physician offices arrayed across multiple US states
To get to its “why”, the emergency management team embarked on a series of intensive, and often contentious, strategy sessions. Those sessions yielded some very interesting results:
The core process is incident management
The team agreed that its primary mission is the five-step ‘incident management process
Incident management for this team means (1) keeping watch for threats; (2) sizing up the threat (when it is identified) for potential impacts on people, facilities, or critical services; (3) notifying everybody with an ownership stake in the situation; (4) activating a crisis team (the incident organization) to gain situational awareness, determine a course of action, roles/responsibilities and battle rhythm and (5) leading that team through emergency operations until the incident is resolved
Resilience for the team means building its own proficiency because it “owns” the crisis space (where chaos and confusion reign). Its job is to “not freeze” but to always be ready and able to operate effectively in an adverse environment
Resilience for the rest of the organization means enabling and empowering others to think and act at the moment. This part was especially challenging because of the competing demands on these people's time combined with an underlying complacency that prevents any real progress in preparedness
The team reviewed studies that indicated that personal preparedness programs were largely wasted effort for the vast majority of people. These studies concluded only people who themselves have been directly impacted by a disaster could be compelled to prepare
The team reasoned that if people who had been directly impacted by disaster could be compelled to prepare, then it must focus on simulating such direct impacts through disaster exercises
The mission of emergency management is transformation and the lever of change is “get to StartEx”
The team identified its primary customers inside the organization as front-line managers and its core offering to these customers as focused, realistic, well-crafted, and well-executed exercises
Exercises create a demand for focused planning, training, and more exercises that enable resilience
Planning consists of lightweight plans/ checklists with exercises incentivizing others into doing the same for their own departments
Managers “own” their business units in blue sky and gray.
This strategy leverages the responsibility of front-line managers to continue to provide their critical services while managing the consequences of the disaster
StartEx (i.e., the beginning of the exercise when players are immersed in a realistic and challenging disaster scenario) was the way to convince them of the uncomfortable reality they will have to own every kind of problem when disaster strikes; that it will be their job to manage up (keep their leadership in the loop), manage across (keep the departments that rely on them in the loop) and manage down (keep their staff in the loop)
Finally, the team concluded that:
Executive buy-in, personnel bandwidth, and time must all be present in order for the strategy to succeed
It needed to continue to build proficiency with technology tools that manage information including mass notification and real-time operations
To free up bandwidth, it would rely more on remote training and vendors for tactical training and to support (not lead) exercise planning and execution
As an emergency management leader, you should not be a servant to the chief executive, nor should you be a petty tyrant building your own empire
To avoid these fates, you must use a reasoned and intentional strategy to guide your actions, allocate your time and resources, and dramatically enhance the value that you provide to your organization
And it is with that intentional strategy that you can answer the ‘Why’ question, the next time you are asked:
“Boss, my job is to make this organization ready to own the next disaster, so you don’t have to”
Kelly R McKinney is the Senior Director of Emergency Management + Enterprise Resilience for NYU Langone Health. He is the former Deputy Commissioner for Preparedness at the New York City Office of Emergency Management and Chief Disaster Officer at the American Red Cross in Greater New York. He is the author of “Moment of Truth: The Nature of Catastrophes and How to Prepare for Them” which was released in July 2018 by Post Hill Press.
 “The one thing you need to know about managing functions: they require their own strategies” By Roger L Martin and Jennifer Riel, Harvard Business Review, July-August 2019, pp 104-113 [accessed at: https://hbr.org/2019/07/the-one-thing-you-need-to-know-about-managing-functions]