Beware the creeping crisis

Apr 1, 2015

The horrific situation we have seen as headline news over the last week is that of hundreds of migrants being drowned in the Mediterranean. The UN confirmed on 20th April that 800 people had died in a single event when the smuggler boat they were on capsized. This incident has all the elements of a ‘creeping crisis’ for the leaders within Europe. 

Jonathan Bernstein, who teaches and consults on crisis management, defines a “Creeping Crisis as foreshadowed by a series of events that decision makers do not view as part of a pattern”. 

My definition is slightly different from Jonathan’s, in that it is an event, which is viewed as not being significant and therefore ignored by those responsible. They either don’t recognise that the event or events could turn into a crisis, or the solutions are complex and difficult to implement so nothing is done about it. The event then becomes a major issue as it is picked up by the media, or an event suddenly takes place which is the tipping point and puts the organisation into crisis. The point about a creeping crisis is that the organisation should have recognised it earlier and done something about it before it became a crisis.

When I am teaching about recognising incidents and invoking plans I use the following example to make the point about a creeping crisis. One of your major IT systems fails and after two hours of internal IT staff trying to fix the system, a specialist systems engineer is called out who is on a service level agreement of three hours to be on your site. The engineer arrives after two and a half hours. He then spends a couple of hours looking at the system and trying to work out what the problem is. He says that he needs a spare part so he goes off back to his depot to collect the part. After four hours he returns. The repair is unsuccessful and so a senior specialist engineer arrives. He declares that a part is needed from Germany which will take twelve hours. This is a creeping crisis in that the problem is always just about to be solved, so nobody declares it a major incident. If you had known the system was going to be down for 24 hours plus then you might have taken a different course of action and invoked your business continuity plan.

For me, the creeping crisis is one of the most difficult types of crisis, as often organisations who fail to recognise the warning signs find themselves in a major incident when they had the opportunity to do something earlier and solve it, or to take a different tack. If your headquarters or key building burns down, then it is obvious that this is a major incident and you should invoke your plans!

I think recognising creeping crises within an organisation should be part of the role of the business continuity manager. They should have a good overview of all the events going on within the organisation and should prompt those managing each event to consider whether it was a creeping crisis or not. I think it is always good practice to ask whether the existing way of dealing with the incident was appropriate and whether an alternative path should be considered just in case the existing way doesn’t work.

Coming back to the Mediterranean migrant drowning’s, this incident has been building for some years. There were drowning’s of immigrants last year, but it was not major headline news.  Now that spring is here and the sea has calmed down, it was inevitable that further migrants would attempt the trip. Politicians throughout Europe are now scurrying around trying to find a suitable solution and the incident is headline news.

There is also another interesting event which I believe is a creeping crisis for the Post Office. A number of people running Post Offices have been sent to jail or sacked for irregularities in accounting. An investigation seems to point to there being issues with the software and that was the issue rather than dishonest staff. This has the potential to be a major crisis for the Post Office. I hope they recognise it early and do something, rather than hoping it goes away as it may not.

Take a second to think about the potential issues occurring in your organisation and think through whether they could become or presently are a creeping crisis.

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