Adaptive Abilities More Important Than Detailed Contingency Plans

The May issue of Harvard Business Review has a special report containing thirteen articles about Preparing for a Pandemic that focus on different areas such as the science behind H5N1, the role of leaders, the importance of communication, and modeling, among others.

However, the article on organizations, Survival of the Adaptive by Nitin Nohria, the Richard P. Chapman Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, is particularly enlightening for PR and and other related professionals counseling clients on crisis management. Nohria writes:

“In the complex and uncertain environment of a sustained, evolving crisis, the most robust organizations will not be those that simply have plans in place but those that have continuous sensing and response capabilities…

We know from complexity theory that following a few basic crisis-response principles is more effective than having a detailed a priori plan in place….

The goal is not to create specific rules for responding to specific threats but to practice new ways of problem solving in an unpredictable and fast-changing environment.”

Nohria recommends that organizations have a global network of people in place that can help out as needed if internal communications systems break down, or as either human or physical resources are compromised.

He also compares the characteristics of organizations that will be less, and those that will be more, successful in surviving an outbreak:

  • Hierarchical vs. networked
  • Centralized leadership vs. distributed leadership
  • Tightly coupled (greater interdependence among parts) vs. loosely coupled (less interdependence)
  • Concentrated workforce vs. dispersed workforce
  • Specialists vs. cross-trained generalists
  • Policy and procedure driven vs. guided by simple yet flexible rules

 

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