If you break your neck, if you have nothing to eat, if your house is on fire, then you got a problem. Everything else is inconvenience. ~Robert Fulghum
Last month’s Anna Hazare’s fasting protest for Lokpal Bill showed one thing – that the government had no idea on how to manage a critical situation. In Baba’s Ramdev’s protest they got away with doing a surprise midnight action by police and thought that they same approach will work. It backfired and people were on the street. The government flip-flopped, screwed up and was red-faced. Their antics not only gave Anna Hazare’s civil society group the upper hand, they also showed that they have no idea what they were doing.
I watched the incident closely and was vastly amused. A small group took on the largest democracy’s government and government was on the back foot.
I have managed a number of crises. I am not sure why my bosses selected me- either because in the biggest of crises I never lost sleep, appetite or my sense of humor. And/or it was because I am single without any liabilities hence can move anywhere in the world within a short time span. So could be easily deputed to the crises location.
Therefore, here are some lessons from the episode, which are applicable to any organizational crises. I used these in many occasions and vouch that they will work.
1. Don’t press panic buttons
Managing most crises situations is a psychological battle. The moment the key players of any one side panic, that team loses the game. So be chilled out and have fun. This might sound inane, but trust me it always has worked for me. Even in Hazare’s case, the government team panicked when they prosecuted him. That resulted in their downfall. Hence, stay calm and collected.
2. Don’t play the opponents game
Never ever play the cards dealt out by an opponent. Develop your own strategy and force the opponent to react to it. The moment the opponent is forced to play your game, you have the upper hand. The Civil Society called the shots in the protest; they had the strategy outlined. The government team spent all their energies reacting to it.
3. Don’t compromise
The moment you show willingness to compromise, you have lost the battle. Stick to your stance and keep the devil may care attitude intact. I recall an incident where a bunch of people wished to blackmail my father since he was in a senior level position and working in highly infested dacoit areas. My father told them to go to hell; he is not paying five bucks also. The blackmailers did not know what to do next.
For this, calculate the worst-case scenario for each of the consequences of the opponents move In Hazare’s case, the worst-case scenario for the government was that Anna Hazare dies fasting. That would have brought on riots and civil unrest. Hazare’s team knew that, they played the government on that.
4. Don’t enter into opponents’ territory unprepared.
Never ever, enter a situation without having all the available information and holding a few aces in your hand. Don’t throw your cards away; hold them as long as possible. In Hazare’s case, the team had worked out the location, logistics, funding etc. The Civil Society ensured that even when the government had a stronghold in Delhi, they got the location for the time period they wanted.
5. Identify the game changer
Determine which person or situation can make you win or lose the game. If a person is critical for your success, get them on your side. For example, if two sides are battling it out, find out who has all the information and on who is their success dependent. Will removing that person from the location make their strategy fall flat? If the opponent doesn’t have the key person or situation to exploit, assess what are the other alternatives they have? If they don’t have any, you have won the first round. In Hazare’s case, Ex-CM Deshmukh turned out to be the game changer.
6. Maintain Confidentiality
In crises, situations don’t use open forums and social networks for discussions. Find a way to communicate confidentially with your few key team members. Give them unidentifiable cell numbers, secure laptops and other communication devises. Ensure that none of the cell phones, laptops, office rooms, etc. are bugged or have spy cameras. In Hazare’s protest, Swami Agnivesh turned out to be a mole. Use only people whom you trust completely from office or personal relationships.
7. Prepare a crises management plan
Even for the remotest of the risks, identify people who can manage them, internally within the organization or hire external resources. Develop detailed plans for all the eventualities. Example are, hire an attorney for legal risks, a brand manager for reputation risks, fraud investigators for fraud risks etc. In Hazare’s case, government failed because they didn’t have a crises management plan.
In crises situations, the leaders and crises managers need to be emotionally strong to lead the organization through it. In some cases, a small fix can control the external problems; however, a lot of effort is required to control the internal damage to the organization. That sometimes takes six months to a year to resolve issues, make the culture strong, fix the systems, build teams etc. The best way to climb the Mount Everest is to start at the bottom and take one-step at a time. It is a test of endurance, persistence and stamina to reach to the top. In adversity, the tough battle it out.