What I Learned About Crisis Management From the Ironman

If you have found yourself here because you are a fan of Marvel Comics or you really enjoy quality time with a movie on the sofa then I apologise - you may be here under false pretences.  I’m won't be writing about a cartoon character - the Ironman that I am talking about is the toughest single day endurance event in the world – swim 2.4 miles, cycle 112 miles and then run a 26.2 mile marathon.  In 2011 after two years of preparation I crossed the finish line, in the dark, to hear “Dougie, you are an Ironman”.

But life isn’t all about endurance events!  In the midst of all that training I had a day job where one of my responsibilities was co-ordinating and leading the response to crises whether they be a power cut, or a product failure or a bad weather front closing down our operations.  On the most challenging days I was first man in and last man out.  So, with the scene set what on earth does an Ironman triathlon have to do with crisis management?  Here is what I think.

When things appear overwhelming, take a breath and focus on the objective.

I cannot lie – the swim segment of an Ironman is like being blindfolded, put in a tumble drier and constantly battered with metal poles for an hour.  You swallow water, get kicked in the face, lose goggles and gasp for air just to survive and these are only the first moments of a day that will see you travel 140.6 miles under your own steam.  After two years of training you can’t let momentary discomfort overwhelm you on the way to your goal – you can only have two objectives at this stage – finish the swim intact and cross the finish line at the end of the marathon.  And it is the same as an incident is developing – you watch systems shut down inexplicably, you see customer calls start to queue, sometimes blame starts to rear it’s ugly head and your phone rings off the hook as lots of interested parties want updated.  There are only two things that should allow into your consciousness at this stage – stabilising the crisis and the final fix to declare the crisis over.  Anything else will drown you. 

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Just because you don’t know what is going to go wrong doesn’t mean you can’t be prepared. 

There aren’t many variations to catastrophic events – in Ironman it can be a mechanical problem on the bike, an injury on the run, losing your goggles on the swim, GI problems at any point of the event and so on.  When you train for a year for this event you make damned sure that you know how to respond to each of these events.  And an operational crisis is no different – you will have business continuity manuals and procedures but you won’t have time to get into them as your fan gets splattered.  Experience, whether live or simulated, is irreplaceable to provide the swiftest most effective response in a crisis – the likelihood is that you won’t see the exact details of the crisis coming but you don’t have to.  Common steps would be – communicate with specialist teams required and call incident management team together; communicate honestly with customers to manage their expectations; provide a situation report and manage expectations of your senior management team; focus on your specific role in the incident management team.  Freestyling as an incident kicks off is never a great idea for your blood pressure, sanity or credibility.

Cut out the noise.

Your mind plays tricks on you, there is a constant dialogue that plays out in your head unless you make a conscious choice to control it.  In the immediate aftermath I blogged about my Ironman; mid way through the run my inner dialogue was unhelpful  “I’ve just been sick, my stomach is in knots, my backs really killing me, I’ve got pains in my feet and my blisters are murder”.  However, as soon as I made a conscious decision to stop listening I instantly felt better.  In an operational crisis everyone has an opinion – and they are often as unhelpful as that voice in my head as I staggered round a marathon course.   As a crisis develops everyone will turn up in your incident command centre – the person that loves drama; the person that loves the detail; the person that loves a problem; the egos will be there and there will be the constant presence of interested, frantic stakeholders at the other end of the phone.  You have to pick the voices that are helpful and engage with them; and you have to identify the voices that steal your energy and your concentration and silence them.

My point?  I have managed crises that have developed over several days and tested my stamina more than Ironman could ever do.  Ironman is a race where you are allowed no outside assistance once the race starts.  But in a crisis you will have a team around you.  It is essential that if you are leading the response you need to have confidence in your own abilities and your judgement; but you also need to know who you want at your side when things get tough.