DTE024 From ‘Command and Control’ to ‘Support and Adapt’: Incident Command Systems and 21st Century Challenges

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The nature of crises has changed radically in recent years, so that rather than being merely ‘major incidents ‘ or ‘routine emergencies’, they are now characterized by their hypercomplexity and the catastrophic impact of their consequences. The centralized command systems that have traditionally been considered the bedrock of crisis response programmes are repeatedly failing to stand up to the challenges posed by this new class of crisis, and it has become clear, following incidents such as 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, that new forms of nonhierarchical, decentralised decision-making and strategy-setting frameworks need to be developed. This paper looks at some of the issues that traditional hierarchical command systems need to address, and suggests a numbers of areas where investigation into the benefits that non-traditional command systems bring could be explored.

A series of recent events across the world has significantly tested the fundamental assumptions underlying current CM methodologies. These have included the power blackouts that affected 600 million people across northern India; the consequences of the Fukushima tsunami /earthquake that, within a few days, left Tokyo on the edge of being a city without food; volcanic activity in Iceland that disrupted international travel across Europe, and increasingly frequent bank IT failures that have left tens of thousands of people to survive purely on the money that they happened to be carrying at the time. In the scale of their impact and complexity, these situations transcend any traditional concept of crisis management frameworks or organisational jurisdictions. The failure to deal with these primary issues and their secondary consequences effectively and in a timely and well-managed manner can no longer be seen as simple management failures, but as a challenge to the legitimacy of governments tasked with ensuring public safety (Boin & ‘t Hart, 2003: Boin, 2009:367; Stark, 2010), and with potential implications as to the social, political and economic continuity of a country (Boin et al, 2003; Guhar- Sapir, 2011).

Traditional crisis management is based on the concept of ‘managing the gap’, whether it is the period between crisis cognition and actual triggering which gives time to develop and deliver preventative measures, or the time lapse between triggering and full-scale escalation which allows time for the introduction of mitigating measures (Hermann and Dayton, 2003). In a world of apparently spontaneous triggering of potentially catastrophic events, and instantaneous cascading across transboundary and often global geographical spreads, the luxury of that time gap no longer exists. The emergence of ‘unthinkable’ and ‘inconceivable’ crises characterized by catastrophic impacts and hypercomplex consequences (Lagadec, 2007), has meant that modern CM has become less concerned with the prevention of catastrophe as management of its aftermaths.

Despite the traditional understanding of crises as existing in the corner of the risk matrix marked by ‘High Impact, Low Likelihood’, situations such as those listed in the opening paragraph can no longer be seen as improbable and rare events (Lalonde, 2007:507). The number, magnitude and impact of natural disasters are all showing an upward trend (Scheuren et al, 2008), and the scale, impact and complexity of their consequences on state and regional stability have all increased beyond the scope of the original conceptualisation of managed crisis response (Tatham & Houghton, 2011). The increasing interconnectedness and interdependency of the global community, which has led to a growing inability to control, or even understand, the governing mechanisms by which our basic social networks are managed, means that crisis are becoming more than ever ‘unknowable unknowable’s’, in Rumsfeld’s memorable phrase. To put it even more starkly, rather than approaching these problems from a position of tabla rasa, confronting them may be considered as entering a complete Terrae Incognitae (Lagadec, 2009). With a triggering and escalation period of seconds rather than hours, days or weeks as was the case in the past, the world is now permanently on the edge of a potentially total systems breakdown, and there is literally nothing that we can do about it. The increasing complexity and cascading nature of present day crises means that we can longer rationalise them in terms of control or management, but only in terms of recovery, and in many cases, survival.

Whilst the nature of crisis has changed, it is questionable as to whether our understanding of the requirements of effective crisis management models and methodologies has evolved to the same degree.The 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre called into question many of the issues involving effective management of, and response to, ‘unthinkable’ crisis scenarios, but it was the widespread failure to respond effectively to Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent damage, destruction and suffering in New Orleans that called into question the viability of extant crisis management methodologies and capabilities (Comfort, 2007; Moynihan, 2009; Corbacioglu & Kapucu, 2006). The failure of the traditional highly-centralized, hierarchically-based command and control crisis management system, which was a ‘cornerstone’ for both theoretical and administrative approaches to crisis management (‘tHart et al, 2003: 12), led to a call for a ‘redefinition of organizational framework and standard terms of emergency management….that fit the reality of practice in extreme events’ (Comfort, 2007:193).Rather than simply adapting existing methodologies,this process of ‘Double Loop Learning’ would call for a concerted attempt to change the paradigm within which crisis management is conceptualised, based on a fundamental questioning of underlying policies and basic practices (Argyris, 1977).

This paper will offer a reappraisal of crisis management models that takes cognisance of both the reality of the failures of traditional CM management methodologies in the face of of 21st century challenges, and theoretical research and empirical evidence concerning non-traditional decentralised command systems. In doing so, it will follow on from the work of other authorities concerning the need to develop alternative crisis management and decision-making processes appropriate to the realities of modern crisis scenarios.

9/11, Hurricane Katrina, Fukushima, Haiti and similar incidents in other jurisdictions, have dramatically shown that any model of crisis management that claims to offer solutions to the threats that the world is facing in the 21st century will need to demonstrate an ability to react and respond in an environment defined by catastrophic crises and hypercomplexity (Lagadec, 2007). Crisis management command systems across the world, but most notable in the US,are firmly grounded in a centralized, hierarchical model of command and control. These are often accepted as the de facto default setting for crisis management, especially following the development of the formal Incident Command System (ICS), in response to what was seen as failures in multi-agency capabilities during Californian wildfires in the 1970’s (Irwin, 1989; Smith & Dowell, 2000; Lutz & Lindell,2008). The DHS-mandated FEMA ICS follows this model, irrespective of the nature or scale of incident it is dealing with, a requirement that was maintained even after the policy changes following Hurricane Katrina (FEMA, 2007; FEMA, 2011). Such centralised command systems are based on a military model of command and control, in which a strictly pyramidal command structure has unity of command as the guiding principle (‘t Hart et al 1993:14). However,there is also an increasingly sophisticated understanding of how the ICS framework can support the development of enhanced capabilities able to respond to the ‘ambiguity and turbulence’ (Tierney & Traynor, 2004:164) of what might be called ‘normal crises’ (Bigley & Roberts, 2001). As such, it is able to adapt its role to the needs of a coordinated multiagency network management approach, rather than being stuck in a systems-led hierarchical command system (Moynihan, 2009). However, its fundamentally hierarchical structure is precisely the weakness that makes it inherently incapable of adapting and responding to the rapidly escalating ‘vicious and unmanageable circles’ (Boin et al,2003:102) that lead to the situational chaos and uncertainty that is inseparable from a true crisis situation. It is this attempt to extend the domain of rationality and bureaucratic organizing to the uncertainty and often chaotic disaster environment(Buck et al, 2006; Boin et al, 2003), that has led to repeated and systemic failures of crisis response programmes at exactly the time that they are most needed.

Although the centralised command system is considered a rationalistic response to the pressures created by a crisis situation, in that it allows decision makers to make fast decisions, decide on specific response strategies and bypass normal bureaucratic channels (‘t hart et t al, 1993), the concentration of power within a small group of homogeneous (Comfort, 2007) senior managers can create an environment where issues of personal power and influence override the need to create immediate and innovative responses (Hermann & Dayton, 2009). Although it would be nice to presume that the pressures and potential catastrophic damage inherent in crisis situations would create an environment where all actors were cooperating for the best interests of the wider community, that is unfortunately not the case (Rosenthal & ‘t Hart,1991). The choice of who is in and who is out is in itself a political decision, and often results in a decision-making cabal comprised of ‘self-selecting experts’ who set up exclusionary barriers based on their own bias (Lodge, 2009). Whilst such small-group thinking creates pressure on its members to compromise on hard decisions in order to maintain group cohesion (‘t Hart, Rosenthal & Kouzmin, 1993), overly prioritizing group cohesion can also lead to faulty decision making (Janis, 1972; Garnett & Kouzmin, 2007). Even in the heat of crisis management, the over-riding law of the organizational jungle may well remain that the ‘fundamental and identity-defining’ competition for power and influence will often trump the need to support others within that circle (Lagadec 2005;Jarman & Kouzmin, 1990).

Although it is the unique nature of each crisis that underpins the failure to respond and manage them appropriately or effectively, the operational reasons for failures are often both simple and predictable (Lagadec, 2005; Comfort, 2007). It is notable that once an incident goes beyond normal operational status and escalates into a ‘unique and unfamiliar’ problem (Munns & Bjeirmi, 1996:81), the subsequent breakdown in response capability is almost inevitably identified as being due not to the nature or scale of the outside event, but rather to a breakdown in what should be fundamental incident management functionality (Dynes, 1970; Quarantelli, 1988). Official reviews into major CM failures (eg Hurricane Katrina (2007), Fukushima (2012) and the Anders Breivik massacre (Norway, 2012) repeatedly identify the same five fundamental organizational weaknesses: lack of understanding of the nature of the crisis; lack of realistic modeling of required responses; lack of leadership; lack of effective communication; lack of inter-agency capability (See also Mintzberg, 1980).These are in line with Quarantelli’s findings in his review of crisis disaster management that there were likely to be critical problems concerning communication and information flow, authority and decision-making, and failures to manage increased coordination and a loosening of the command structure (Quarantelli, 1988:375). As the 9/11 report unequivocally stated, aside from the specific operational issues, the underlying fault-lines in the government’s failure to develop an effective crisis management capability was founded on its’ ‘broader inability to adapt how it manages problems to the challenges of the twenty-first century’ (9/11 Commission Report: 353).

Topology of Crises

The generic use of the phrases ‘Crisis’ and ‘Crisis Management’ in the literature covers a wide range of scenarios, though often with little clear relevance to genuine crisis situations. Although there are seemingly as many definitions as there are academic articles, the underlying criteria were set by Hermann (1963:64), with a three-stage definition taking into account threat, time pressure and uncertainty. Despite the fact that many studies presume that both time pressure (urgency) (Grint, 2008) and uncertainty (surprise) (Veil, 2001) are prerequisites for crisis, Hermann & Dayton found in their study of decision making in transboundary crises that in 50% of the cases they investigated there was time for consideration in the run up to the crisis situation, which were themselves anticipated scenarios, and only 40% of the situations were considered as surprises, where the policy makers were caught offguard and had no plan of action (Hermann and Dayton (2009:235). Lalonde (2007) describes crises including natural disasters, technological catastrophe, terrorist attack or management failure; Quarantelli (2008) analyses ‘consensus-type’ crises – natural and technological disasters, and conflict crises – riots, civil strife; Pearson and Clair (1998:60) list organizational crises that comingle potential crisis management problems (natural disasters, terrorist attack) with normal operating management procedures (copyright infringement, bribery); Veil, (2011) analysis corporate and organizational crises; Roe (2009) analysed the role of decision making in financial crises; Van Wart & Kapucu (2011) offer examples of crises developing from human error, and there is also the study of crises centring on international disputes (‘t Hart, Rosenthal & Kouzmin ,1993; Stern, 2000; EPC, 2005). There is also a hierarchy of urgency and potential catastrophic consequences running from incidents, accidents, conflicts, rupture and crises (Pauchant & Mitroff, 1992) which in turn are classified as normal crises (Bigley & Roberts, 2001), routine crises (Moynihan, 2008),through creeping crises (Lalonde, 2007; Hermann & Dayton, 2009), to unthinkable and inconceivable hypercomplex catastrophic crises (Lagadec (2007). For the purposes of this paper, crises are considered to be those extreme ‘landscape crises’ situations (Howitt & Leonard, 2006b), characterised by a total breakdown in normal operating environment, where management and presumed crisis management responses are either no longer applicable or are no longer accessible (Roux- Dufort, 2007). As well as the normal pressures of urgency and uncertainly they are also situations with trans jurisdictional impacts and potential for catastrophic damage. If a situation is anticipated, planned and practiced for, and can be approached under the terms of Standard Operating Procedures, then it should more correctly be considered as ‘Routine Emergencies’ (Howitt & Leonard, 2009) rather than a true crisis situation.

Hierarchical Command Systems: Removing Uncertainty

The hierarchical control systems that are currently considered appropriate to manage the response to complex incidents are directly traceable to a model of ‘instructionist management’ that was developed at the start of the Industrial Revolution, and which was designed to oversee the delivery of a product, whether a mass-produced artefact or one-off bridges or ocean liners (Burns, 1963). It was developed around a process-driven production-line system based on standardization, compartmentalization (division of labour) and a separation between the individual and the final product, and its ultimate objective was to remove any form or possibility of uncertainty from the production process (Pich et al, 2002). The reliability of the operating system was predicated specifically on the validity of the design process that created it (Schulman et al, 2004). Within such a system, the human operator has no more significance than any other component of the machine, and it is a requirement of the successful functioning of the system that their role is limited to fulfilling their tasks in as unthinking a way as possible (Burns & Stalker, 1961:103). Such modelling is based on a belief in the power of mechanistic, rationalistic linear analysis to arrive at the solution of any problem. Based itself on Newtonian mechanistic physics (Rittel and Webber, 1973:156), it accepts as a given that planners and systems analysts can break down problems into component parts, individual sections can be isolated and treated as self-contained units, and that there is a logical process based on identification of problem, analysis of needs and delivery of a ‘correct’ solution, that will lead to final resolution.

The following description of a basic structure of an ICS appropriate for large-scale emergencies or disasters could have been used word-for-word to describe a 19th century cotton mill:

‘The system is highly formalized, characterized by extensive rules, procedures, policies, and instructions. Jobs within the system are specialized, are based on standardized routines, and require particularized training. Positions are arranged hierarchically and related to one another on the basis of formal authority’ (Bigley and Roberts, 2001: 1282).

However, the attempt to transfer such a mechanistic design to the field of crisis planning and management carries the seeds of failure inbuilt in its DNA. The ’Paradox of Rationality’ (Rittel, 1972:391) is that the validity of such a mechanistic, rationalistic systems management approach is predicated on the ability to use deductive reasoning to anticipate all possible consequences of a potential action, and thereby to eliminate those causal pathways that are harmful and undesirable, and to leave a single causal pathway that leads inevitably and unavoidably to the desired optimal outcome. Not only is this impossible in anything outside of a highly-engineered mechanistic system, but even systems science texts make it clear that their models and approaches are not applicable to ‘real world phenomena such as social or organizational groups [which]are typically poorly structured or “messy”’ (Flood & Carson, 1993:11). In fact, not only are such tightly-defined systems no longer functional in a loosely structured environment, but the belief that they are – that you can set the parameters for how a crisis will develop, and then set assumptions as to how it will respond tamely to your own interventions, is not only dangerous and crisis-creating in itself (Clarke, 1999), but also enters into the realm of moral responsibility (Wexler, 2009).

The effectiveness of a centralized command system, as exemplified in the ICS framework, is predicated on two limiting criteria, both of which become inoperable in truly crisis scenarios. The first is that rather than dealing with truly crisis situations (that is, those which significantly exceed an organization’s capability to adapt and respond), the scenarios that are used as evidence of ICS value are usually positioned within what could be described as the ‘normal operating environment’ of the responding agencies, involving ‘preplanned organizational solutions to meet the more predictable aspects of an evolving incident’ (Bigley & Roberts, 2001:1297; Howitt & Leonard, 2009). The challenges that they are facing, and which the hierarchical command structure would be tasked with managing, are those that they would have been expected to practice and prepare for (Lutz and Lindell, 2008). They are also situations where those utilizing it are official responders, part of a community developed through years of training and shared experiences, where the demands being responded to are routine to them, and where social and cultural emergence is at a minimum (Buck et al, 2006). This modeling of crisis management conceptualizes the crisis as an incident, one which undoubtedly had a potential for destructive consequences, but which nevertheless can be approached in isolation, and which has a cause which can be solved with the application of the correct (and known) solution (Lagadec, 2007).

The second criteria for judging ICS effectiveness involves inter-agency integration. Although the management of inter-agency coordination is often cited as the reason for the need for ICS (Moynihan , 2009:899), case studies are often limited to operations involving coordination between agencies of a similar nature, in particular fire departments with other fire departments (Moynihan 2009:901). Bigley and Roberts’ paper (2001) concerning high-reliability organizing for complex and volatile task environments, focuses exclusively on a fire department responding to fire situations. Other high-reliability organizations that were said to embody the principles of a centralized hierarchical ICS include naval aircraft carriers, nuclear power generation plants, air traffic control systems, space shuttles and maritime systems (Bigley and Roberts 2001:1293). Although these are undoubtedly complex organisations, they are only complex on an internal basis, and in fact the development of their complexity is contingent on a shared ‘sense making’ (Weick, 1988) between all actors that allows extremely technical issues to be discussed in a highly-coded and mutually understandable lingua franca. This is precisely the opposite position from the challenges of creating interoperability with other agencies which may not benefit from a common operational language, basis of crisis cognition, or shared embodied knowledge (Boin et al, 2003).

Whilst centralised command systems theoretically offer a framework for managing conglomerations of agencies that share common values, even under such tightly defined criteria their effectiveness in responding to challenges outside strictly normative conditions can be less than optimal (Howitt and Leonard, 2005:41). However, it is precisely at the point that crisis response operations move beyond the ‘routine emergencies’ (Lutz and Lindell, 2008:122), and where they are required to create innovative solutions in the midst of a highly volatile crisis situation, that the weaknesses of hierarchically-managed command systems become clear. An instructionist / hierarchical system is predicated on decisions being made and then disseminated through the command chain of a ‘relatively small and homogenous group of actors with similar backgrounds’ (Moynihan 2009:903), within an administrative framework that assume stable operating conditions (Comfort, 2007). In fact, the traditional division between strategic and operational roles, based on the concept that strategists work out the solutions and operational managers deliver them, tend to imbue the strategic commanders with an omniscience on which all decisions will be based (Burns & Stalker, 1961; Daft & Weick, 1984). However, it is the very distance from the crisis location that inhibits the decision-making power of the strategists. Given the necessity for assimilating information, developing solutions, and transmitting them back down the command chain (which in a highly complex and unstable environment, may itself be time consuming, dependent on fragile communications systems and being held hostage to the possibility (likelihood) that detailed information will be misheard, mis-transmitted or misunderstood at some stage in the communications chain (Van Wart & Kapucu, 2011; Butts et al, 2007; Garnett & Kouzmin, 2007), the reality is that by the time the latest strategic decisions have been passed down the command chain, the situation on the ground will have changed to such a degree that the local teams will have already created their own solutions to the original problem, and are now anyway involved with managing a different set of problems that have developed since the initial request for clarification was sent out.

Studies on the topology of increasingly complex organizational frameworks (Dynes, 1970) or the Emergent Multi-Organizational Networks (EMON’s) that came together in response to 9/11 (Kapucu, 2005) and Katrina (Comfort and Kapucu, 2006; Comfort 2007; Marcum, Bevc and Butts, 2012), demonstrate that from both a theoretical and an empirical perspective, the usefulness of centralized command systems are strongly bounded by issues of size and organizational complexity, and are quickly called into question once the scale and composition of the response operation moves beyond what might be considered ‘enhanced normality’ (Wenger et al, 1990). However, it should also be noted that both Buck et al (2006) and Moynihan (2009) make the point that questioning of the validity of the hierarchical, centralised Incident Command System comes almost exclusively from the academic community, whilst the response community ‘has been almost universal in its praise of ICS’ (Buck et al, 2006:3).

The Nature of Hypercomplex Crises

If traditional crisis management modelling saw crises as little more than large-scale incidents, ‘an event circumscribed to a specific area, within a global system that otherwise remained stable’, (Lagadec, 2007:1), the nature of the threats that we now face are infinitely more complex, with cascading consequences that are literally incalculable. The ‘hypercomplex’ scenarios examined by Lagadec (2007), reflect the concerns first circulated in a seminal paper setting out the parameters for what were labelled ‘Wicked Problems’ (Rittel & Webber, 1973). Initially focussing on issues of social planning, wicked problems describe open-ended crisis environments that are not bounded, and which can neither be described in traditional mechanistic terms, nor ‘solved’ through traditional crisis management approaches. Hurricane Katrina was a classic example of a wicked problem, in that the original triggering event soon became relatively unimportant in describing and prioritising the consequential crises that it caused. Immediate, and in themselves catastrophic, crises dilemmas included the rescue of thousands of stranded citizens, the housing, feeding and caring of tens of thousands of homeless people, the restoration of a city, the preservation of public safety in light of the impact on critical infrastructure, the impact on adjacent jurisdictions and, on another level, the political implications of the perceived failures of the government, the emergency management community, the homeland security agencies and the President himself, who was seen to embody those failures on the public stage. The 2011 Fukushima earthquake / tsunami is another example of a situation where the initial ‘triggering point’, catastrophic as it was in its own terms, soon became superseded by the impact of a nuclear breakdown, and the subsequent cascading effects on the food supply to Tokyo, the threat of a transnational nuclear cloud, as well as the impact on global supply chains of the disruption of Japanese component manufacturing.

In describing such fundamentally undefinable scenarios, Rittel & Webber’s analysis identified a new class of crisis that would not only fail to respond to classical RM methodologies, but had mutated into a completely different class of event. Similar to a virus that mutates so much from its original form that it not only refuses to respond to traditional approaches, but redefines the parameters of what the threat is (as was seen in the BSE situation when the triggering virus jumped the species barrier (Lagadec, 2005)), so the new threat must be seen in terms of a completely new and distinct threat topology, rather than being a sub-set of previously modeled problems. Unbounded and hypercomplex events can no longer be seen merely as a higher, more dynamic form of accidents (Lagadec, 2009).

They are in fact a central reality of the modern world. If classical risk management was the domain of the statistician, predicting future possibilities based on an analysis of an aggregate of the masses, the threat set by the new paradigm is predicated on the criticality of the singularity, the outlier – the unknowable and inconceivable (Lagadec, 2005).

The dilemmas that wicked problems pose to crisis managers, strategists and planners are twofold. Firstly, by the nature of their scale, complexity and non-bounded nature, the choice of any particular response option can only be made in a context of ambiguity, information asymmetry and organizational fragmentation (Lodge, 2009). In other words, it is often hard to know what exactly the problem is. It is this ambiguity created by lack of central locus combined with unbounded limitations (Howitt & Leonard, 2006b) that distinguishes the true wicked problem from, for example, the major fire that Bigley & Roberts use in their critique of ICS within disaster management scenarios (Bigley & Roberts, 2003). The second problem that the wicked problem sets is that there are no ‘classes’ of wicked problems that can act as a template for possible responses (Rittel and Weber, 1973; Rittel, 1972). Any response to a wicked problem is, by definition, going to be innovative, self-generating and based on ad hoc meetings of minds between a disparate range of knowledge-holders, who will develop situationally responsive solutions based on their own knowledge, experience and insight (‘t Hart et al, 1993; Howitt & Leonard, 2006).

The polar opposite of such undefined, unbounded and ultimately unknowable situations are the tightly-coupled, inter-dependent systems described by Perrow (1999). Such systems, often sitting within the national critical infrastructure, are characterized by the potential catastrophic effects of even minor systems failures, involving both fast escalating (developing into fully-blown crisis), and rapidly cascading (affecting multiple levels of society across a wide geographical spread) consequences. High Reliability Theory (HRT), is the theoretical modeling of decision-making which sets as its objective the understanding of the creation of highly reliable operation management programmes that are fail-safe (‘systems that are not only foolproof, but damned foolproof’, in Schulman et al, 2004:23), within the context of such highly complex, interconnected and dependent networks. HRT depends on granular modeling of systems dependencies, identifying potential vulnerabilities and creating safeguards to ensure that the likelihood of any malfunction is minimised, at the same time ensuring that any gestating problem will be identified at the earliest possible stage in order to allow early (and low-input) intervention.

It has generally been accepted that the highly interdependent and tightly bounded nature of HRS precludes the possibility of innovative and creative solutions to potential or actual problems. However, even within the systems dependency and tight coupling of a major power management system, it is precisely the ability of operators dealing with the immediate realities of emerging problems to create innovative solutions using their experience and improvisational abilities that allows them to deal with surprises and volatile events (Schulman et al, 2004, de Bruijne & van Eeten, 2007). In fact, the undirected actions of self-asserting operators responding to the contingencies of a crisis situation are seen as critical in almost every crisis (‘t Hart et al, 1993:33). This suggests that there may in fact be lessons that can be drawn for the highly-designed environment of critical infrastructures that could have value and relevance within the unformed chaotic milieu of crisis management.

From ‘Instructionist’ to ‘Innovative’

The model of crisis management that has been discussed so far follows from the assumption that correct analysis of a problem, though identification of critical decision paths, will allow the ‘correct’ solution to be discovered that will lead to a desired solution. However, with the growth of the understanding in concepts such as ‘fuzzy thinking’ in the 1970’s, it became clear that there were other decision-making methodologies available besides the centralised control of increasingly small components of activity. Although the reductionist, mechanistic models may have been appropriate to the problems of the emerging industrial age, they are not applicable to the ‘messy problems’ (Flood and Carson, 1993) characteristic of the 21st Century. Whether they are labelled as wicked problems, hypercomplex or catastrophic events, it is now recognised that responses to increasingly complex crisis scenarios are based on emergent ad hoc interactions between differentiated groups, each with their own organisational culture, language and wealth of embodied experience. The need is to find a way of creating the space wherein these groups, each with its own highly-developed but at the same time highly-focused expertise, are able to develop collaborative relationships based on trust, communication and a recognition of the shared values of the other (Bresnen et al, 2003).

The fundamental nature of wicked problems was considered by Rittel to be that the ‘answer’ to wicked problems do not exist , and although there may be ‘experts’ who have particular specialist insight and understanding into specific aspects of the crisis, there are no ‘experts’ who can claim to know how to solve them (Rittel, 1972). Solutions are not so much managed, as brought into existence through an iterative decision making process that is in a constant state of flux (Bresnan et al, 2003:157; Rittel & Webber, 1973; Lagadec, 1997; van Bueren, Klijn & Koppenjan, 2003; Moynihan, 2008). This perspective assumes that solutions to crisis situations must be pragmatic and situationally responsive (‘t Hart et al, 1993:35), rather than being predicated on the management of mechanistic systems-based solutions. The people who are interacting with the crisis environment are constantly monitoring and assessing changing situations, and then creating new decision-paths, which in turn are monitored, assessed and adapted (Pich et al, 2002; Weick, 1988). This process is dependent on the interaction of experienced practitioners who are the repositories of specialised knowledge that is in itself tacit, intangible and context-dependent (Bresnan et al, 2003:160). Such knowledge, by its very nature, resists attempts to codify it into universally applicable ‘Guides to Practice’.

This acknowledgment of the unknowability of the future state of the project even as it is being initiated changes the whole crisis management process from one of mechanistic control of a tightly-managed production procedure at the end of which there will appear the finished article (‘The Solution’), to one where the project itself is seen as inherently innovative, experimental and ambiguous (Mitzberg, 1994). It is within such a working space that project management strategies are more likely to be focused on a ‘probe and learn’ methodology, based on ‘Clumsy Solutions’ (Grint 2008; Verwiej et al, 2006), or even ‘fuzzy gambling’ (Dror 1989), where the project itself is seen as a learning, reflective process, progressing through a series of failures and improvement (Pich et al, 2003: 1010), and where managers can do no more than ‘grope along’ in their move towards organizational goals (Rist, 1994:554). This stands in contrast to the classical understanding of strategic decision making, which is focused on developing ‘deliberate conscious set of guidelines that determines decisions into the future’ (Mintzberg, 1978:935). In wicked problems, there is no one correct answer, because there is no way of testing the outcomes or consequences of any particular option (Rittel, 1972). The general tone is one of consultancy between peers holding embodied knowledge rather than a predetermined response delivered through a system of hierarchical commands and instructions (Burns & Stalker 1961). As such, the role of the central command team is to coordinate actions and to support them in appropriating resources and resolving conflict, rather than directing and commanding (Moynihan, 2009).

The realities of the challenges of responding to either unthinkable (9/11) or highly-predicted but nevertheless surprising events (Hurricane Katrina), led to an understanding of the significance of Emergent Multi-Organization Networks (EMON’s) as a critical stage in creating effective solutions within the context of high-stress, highly unstable and fast mutating threat environments (Comfort & Kapucu, 2006; Comfort, 2007). Other variants include Planned Multi-Organizational Networks (PMON) and Mixed Multi-Organizational Networks (MMON) (Lutz & Lindell, 2008:124). Although the criticality of such ad hoc and often spontaneous MON’s in creating innovative solutions is offered as an alternative theoretical model to the tightly controlling centralized management system that has been the prevailing orthodoxy in crisis management studies, it’s fundamental need – and nature – were described fifty years ago.

‘Organismic systems are adapted to unstable conditions where new and unfamiliar problems and requirements continually arise which cannot be broken down and distributed amongst specialist roles within a hierarchy….. Responsibilities and functions and even methods and powers have to be constantly redefined through interactions with others participating in common tasks or in the solutions to common problems’ (Burns 1963: 17-20).

However, despite the ad hoc nature of such non-hierarchical, decentralized, free-forming emergent groupings, the efficiency of both the individual components and the inter-connected whole are nevertheless dependent on the amount of training and inter-agency practice that the participating agencies undergo (Lutz & Lindell, 2008). As such, effective response within the unstable crisis environments that EMON’s thrive in is still dependent on pre-event organizational preparation and training, as well as the capabilities and motivation of critical individuals (Butts et al, 2007; Schulman et al, 2004; de Bruijne & van Eeten, 2007).

Given the lack of an epistemological understanding of how knowledge and insight that is embodied in experienced practitioners can be encoded and transferred to organisational frameworks, which in turn can then be utilised in a range of contexts, it is no surprise that those that talk of such issues often sound as though they are searching for the correct terminology that can capture and convoy exactly what is required. In acknowledging that such professional insight is by its very nature unspoken, intuitive and even indescribable, one is almost reminded of the opening lines of the Tao Te Ching ‘That Tao which can be described in words is not The Tao’.

‘In case of process innovation…what is learned is often tacit, intangible and context-dependent….Such learning is not only difficult to measure and evaluate, it is also difficult to capture in explicit forms, in ways that can be understood and applied in new contexts…. How is the organisation able to capture learning and deploy it over the long term, when it is so embedded in the individual and manifested in their particular expertise and range of contacts….The individual embodiment of engineering knowledge and expertise militated against the transfer of such knowledge…” (Bresnen et al, 2003:163, 164).

It may seem paradoxical to ask how that which cannot be talked of can be shared, and that which cannot be described can be taught, but just as with any paradox, the answer lies not in confronting mutually self-negating contradictions, but in rephrasing the question. As such, the role of the strategic crisis manager is not so much to directly facilitate the transfer of explicit knowledge from one ‘knowledge holder’ to another ‘knowledge receiver’, much less to command and direct, but rather to create and support a working environment that facilitates the development of a truly interactive community, one which can collectively develop and explore the innovative solutions that are at the heart of modern crisis response.


The recognition of the nature of crisis response as a free-form interaction between a community of ‘knowledge holders’, each with their accumulated experience, insight and embedded understanding of potential options, and the ever-changing situation which they are facing, will set the foundation for the on-going debate as to how decentralised non-hierarchical response management systems can be developed. It is hoped that this paper will contribute to the search for ‘a more sophisticated , contingent and empirically grounded theory of crisis management’ (‘t Hart et al, 1993:12), as well as acting as a catalyst for further investigation into this area of crisis management, one which will be crucial in developing a crisis and disaster response capability appropriate to the challenges of the 21st century.


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Deltar Training Solutions is a London-based international consultancy specialising in the strategic management of complex crisis events.

Dr David Rubens D.SyRM, CSyP, FSyI, MD Deltar Training Solutions

David holds a Professional Doctorate in Security and Risk Management (D.SyRM) from University of Portsmouth, writing his thesis on strategic management and critical decision-making in hyper-complex crisis environments. He holds an MSc in Security and Risk Management (2006) from Leicester University, where he was a Visiting Lecturer and Dissertation Supervisor on their Security, Terrorism and Policing programme (2006-12), and was a Visiting Lecturer on the Strategic Leadership Programme at the Security and Resilience Department, Cranfield University, UK Defence Academy (2009-’10), focusing on terrorism and public policy, and the management of large-scale, complex multi-agency operations.

Dr Rubens is a founding member of the Academic Advisory Group to the London Resilience Gold Command Crisis Management Project.