Crisis response post-mortems must focus on people, not just process

By Geoffrey Brown OAM

We all hope that our emergency response or business continuity plans will never have to see the light of day, but recent events have shown just how important these plans are. What many businesses neglect is the importance of post-crisis reflection.

As the restrictions of the COVID-19 lockdown continue to ease, business leaders need to start thinking about how to understand the true impact of the pandemic and their organisations’ responses so they can carry the lessons forward. The possibility of a second wave makes the urgency of conducting these post-mortems pressing, but it is important to get the design right before you get started.

In reviewing responses, I would strongly recommend that businesses take the time to reflect on what they did over the past 90 days, how they did it, why they did it and the outcomes resulting from these actions. Above all, it is vital that human impacts are unearthed, and it is therefore essential to give both your employees and customers a voice during the process. They need to be heard, management teams need to stop and listen. This applies whether you are reviewing pandemic, or a PR disaster.

The process you follow can create insights and benefits beyond well-targeted changes to policies, processes, and procedures. The exercise gives you a chance to discuss with your staff and customers how they handled the event, both operationally and emotionally, and whether they continue to carry “scars” from the ordeal. Staff are more likely to open-up about how they feel, or felt at the time, if they are providing input to a broader process rather than a simple wellbeing assessment. At a minimum, the result will be a more robust operating model, but in the current environment insights could literally serve as the deciding factor between future success or failure of your business.

Where to start

As a starting point, you will need to formulate questions that reveal insights to the most recent event or incident that required you to utilise your Business Continuity Plan (BCP) or Emergency Response Plan (ERP).

  1. The impact of your organisation’s response on its customers/constituents, employees and management team members.
  2. What worked effectively and efficiently across the operating model, including changes that should become business as usual going forward.
  3. What did not work effectively or efficiently across the operating model that should now stop.
  4. Whether your ERP/BCP provided adequate support during the situation.
  5. Any lessons learned that should inform changes to that plan.
Getting honest answers

Australians are often reticent to challenge decisions by those who have brought them through a storm, or to look at their own part in a response when things don’t go to plan. So how do you get honest responses? The answer is immediacy, sensitivity, sign posting and independence.

Firstly, it will be important to complete the evaluation while the issues and emotions remain fresh in peoples’ minds, so act fast.

Secondly, the evaluation needs to be a safe space, focussed on building business resilience rather than pointing the finger. It is important to use diverse and culturally sensitive methods to engage with your employees and customers. Everyone needs to be able to engage in different ways, don’t use old fixed methodologies… Think outside of the box.

Thirdly, the post-mortem needs to be tightly controlled and not be allowed to become bureaucratic or open-ended. Signpost the areas for reflection. Make the evaluation outcome-focussed by spelling out that the purpose is to update response plans and build business resilience.

Finally, ensure your evaluation removes bias and constraints by engaging an independent adviser to co-design and facilitate the process. Your management team will already be under extreme pressure managing business as usual and growth, and they will also have preconceptions about the responses they expect to hear, which can unwittingly influence the process and its outcomes.

As someone with experience taking a business through a high impact event – the first Bali bombing of Kuta – I have experience in this area. My key insight with any reflective evaluation on a response of the magnitude of COVID-19 is the importance of discovering the impacts on the people involved and the potentially transformative insights that they hold. Business continuity plans cannot operate in isolation from people.

If you need advice on designing a response evaluation for your business, I would be more than happy to help. You can contact me via