COVID-19 – Why you should be conducting a debrief now!

May 7, 2020

This week Charlies discusses why you should be carrying out a debrief of your organisation’s response to COVID-19 now.

‘Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning’ – Winston Churchill, 1942 – Speech at London’s Mansion House.

We have been locked down for a number of weeks now in the UK and speculation says that the restrictions will soon be relaxed. Although, as per the quote above, this is not the end of the incident but movement into a new stage. As the COVID-19 response is going to be with us for several months yet or even years, as business continuity professionals you should take the opportunity to carry out a debrief of your organisations’ response to date, alongside your planning for relaxation of the restrictions.

Why now?

There are a number of reasons why I think now is the right time to do this:

1. If the incident is going to go on for several months, then by the time the incident is declared over, memories of what happened will have faded and the information and lessons learned may be lost. You may have kept logs of events throughout the pandemic, but it will be more difficult to see them in context of events occurring in a year’s time.

2. The lockdown was imposed on all organisations and so there was limited decision making for each company in how they responded. If you are a non-essential organisation, you were given no choice but to close down. Once the lockdown is relaxed, there will be much more opportunity to interpret the rules. I think the first phase of the response is very different in context to the coming phases, so it’s worth debriefing on its own.

3. The preparation before the event will have an impact on how your organisation responded and you may want to explore whether you carried out sufficient preparation prior to the pandemic taking place. Whether or not you responded quickly enough in January and February, when the coronavirus was spreading in China, could also be looked at. Again, I think looking at your preparation in a year’s time will be difficult, with memory and the ability to see the situation in the context of events quickly fading.

4. There is a temptation to say that this is a unique event and so it is not really worth debriefing, as it will never happen again or at least not in the same way. We know from history, even in the 20th Century, that pandemics happen reasonably often and even if another event may not occur in the same way and the government choose a different response strategy, managers should bear in mind that ‘the fact that identical crises never happen twice makes it all the more necessary for managers to acquire the skills of adoption, invasion and tolerance for uncertainty’.

What you are hoping to learn from the debrief?

There are a number of different aspects of coronavirus you may want to review and look at during your debrief:

1. What level of planning did the organisation have in place before the pandemic?

2. Why was the specific level of planning in place?

3. Who was responsible for the plan and identifying potential risks?

4. Did our organisation’s plans fit the incident, how far off were they, what assumptions were made and why/what was the difference compared to what actually happened?

5. How did the organisation respond and when? In hindsight, could we have done more and earlier? What was the reason for any differences?

6. Review the communications with stakeholders and whether the communications had the desired effect.

7. Did our incident management process, team(s) and procedures work as we thought they would?

8. What have we learned from our overall response and how could that response be improved?

There is a large number of different areas and aspects to debrief, looking at the preparation and then the linear response, as well as looking at general points. How you decide within your own organisation to debrief will be very dependent on time available and the senior management’s appetite to have a detailed debriefing or a more general review. Even if there is not the appetite for detail, you should at least be looking at your part of the organisation’s response!

Conducting the Debrief

There are numerous different ways of debriefing, so I will only outline a few different ways here:

1. Structured Debriefing: Debrief a group using Post-it notes and a ‘visual’ on a flip chart looking at what went well, what went badly, what you have learned personally from the incident and what your learning points are. This methodology, which is still very much in use today, was developed in the early 2000s by policeman John Arney.

2. After Action Review: This method was originally developed by the U.S. Army – look at what happened, what was meant to happen and why there was a difference between the two.

3. 5 Whys: Keep asking why until you get to the root cause of an issue.

4. War Gaming: Use a form of war gaming to go through key areas of your response and look at what other courses of action were open and what could have happened which might have given a more favourable or worse outcome.

Ensuring Objectivity

In researching this bulletin, I read a chapter in “Crisis Management in a Complex World” and one of the chapters was all about the different biases there were when conducting a debrief. This varied from ‘hindsight bias’ to ‘socio-political normalisation’! My take away from this chapter was that there is an infinite amount of biases and that whatever you do, you will end up with some bias. Trying not to scapegoat individuals, finding simple solutions and being honest will go a long way in getting a good strong recommendation from the debrief.

If you have time, you should look at why things happened and look at the whole system, not just events, as the system may be at fault and produced negative outcomes. There may have been a failure by risk management to identify the coronavirus early enough, but a contributing reason for this could be that the risk manager was told to concentrate on financial risks, was overworked and nobody took them seriously, so if they highlighted the risk early, they would have been ignored anyway.

Next Steps

Take this opportunity to do something and complete your debrief now, as the context of the incident will have changed and memories will had faded if you wait until the incident is over.

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