Crisis management lessons from the air-crash investigation model

Research consistently shows that organisational denial is one of the most common barriers to learning. Crisis management expert Tony Jaques explains how you can avoid falling into 'it won't happen to us' mode.

When your organisation is recovering after a crisis or a damaging public issue, it’s very tempting to look for an excuse not to review what just happened, especially if management was at fault.

It’s a pretty human response, but unwillingness to learn from what went wrong is a serious mistake which blocks the opportunity to improve crisis preparedness and prevention.

The air-crash investigation model has some real lessons for issue and crisis managers, because the safety of today’s air travel is largely built on improvements resulting from an honest investigation of past failures.

So, next time you sit in an aircraft waiting for take-off, be aware that the modern standard of communication between pilots and air traffic control was massively overhauled following investigation into the Tenerife airport disaster in 1977, when two jumbo jets collided on the runway.

When you listen to that standard boring announcement about no smoking in the toilets, be reminded that smoke detectors and automatic fire extinguishers became mandatory after an investigation into the fatal crash of an Air Canada plane in 1983 revealed a fire started in the toilet and went undetected.

And as you lean back to enjoy the in-flight entertainment, think about Swissair Flight 111 which crashed into the sea after taking off from New York in 1998. A five-year investigation found a fire started in the in-flight entertainment system and ignited flammable insulation. That led to new fire-resistant materials in aircraft construction.

Obviously, a five-year investigation is not warranted for a typical corporate crisis. But the air-crash investigation model provides some powerful, yet simple, guidance for executives:

• Find out what really happened.
• Avoid setting out to assign blame.
• Bring in experts if needed.
• Learn from the event and make changes to avoid it happening again.

The emerging new integrated approach to crisis management recognises that preventing a crisis before it happens – and learning after it happens – are just as much part of the process as responding to the event itself.

The post-event review will very much depend on the nature of the organisation and the scale of what happened. It might be a small management team assessment; or a technical root-cause analysis; or a forensic accounting exercise; or a root and branch review. It might even involve cooperating with an external review, such as a coroner’s inquest or an official investigation.

Furthermore, in the same way that lessons from an air-crash investigation are shared with other airlines, aircraft manufacturers and regulators to improve maintenance and safety, you need to learn not only from your own crises but also from the crises of others.

When a major problem strikes another organisation it’s easy to conclude: ‘Thank goodness it wasn’t us’ and move on with business as usual. But it’s much more productive to ask: ‘Could it have been us?’ and ‘Would we have made the same mistakes?’ and ‘What can we learn from this?’

Research consistently shows that organisational denial – ‘It won’t happen to us’ – is one of the commonest barriers to learning. To work towards the crisis-proof organisation, you need a formal post-event learning mechanism, with evaluation and modification as an integral part of the process, not just bolted on as an afterthought.

This piece appeared in Tony Jaques’ Managing Outcomes newsletter. You can subscribe here.


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