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20 concepts every crisis manager should know

This article presents 20 key concepts that should be in the imaginary 'backpack' of every crisis manager.

This article presents 20 key concepts that should be in the imaginary 'backpack' of every crisis manager.


FORDEC is a model which can be used to structure crisis management decision-making, especially in case there is sufficient time to make decisions. It stands for Facts (what is the problem), Options (what to do), Risks (what are the downside and update of each option), Decide (choose the best workable option), Execute (implement decision) and Check (verify if the decision is implemented and works according to plan).

Related is the OODA-loop. OODA stands for Observe, Orient, Decide and Act and is developed by fighter pilot John Boyd. The OODA-loop put emphasis on action and short, closed feedback loops. It teaches us to filter available information, put it in context, and quickly make the best decision with the understanding that we can always improve as more data becomes available.

Skin in the game

According to Nassim Taleb, good advisors or decision-makers should have skin in the game, i.e. they should have a measurable risk when taking a major decision. “If you have no skin in the game, you should not play that game” according to Taleb. Hence, if you take a risk or give advice, you have to bear the consequences, whether they are positive or negative.  

Hockey stick of exponential growth

The hockey stick of exponential growth relates to operational disruptions and has been described by Ed Oomes, founder of crisis management blog Rizoomes. Small incidents start to develop slowly and get bigger and bigger until the disruption grows so exponentially that you are falling behind. Take a highway as an example. If it gets disrupted midday, there might be limited impact at first but this will change significantly once the evening rush hour kicks in. You have to anticipate this at an early stage of the crisis response.

Gell-Mann amnesia

The Gell-Mann amnesia describes the phenomenon of an expert believing news articles on topics outside of his or her field of expertise even after acknowledging that articles written in the same medium within the expert’s field of expertise are inaccurate or completely mistaken. This principle implies that crisis managers must remain critical of third-party information, even if this information is outside their area of expertise.

Sunk-cost fallacy

The sunk-cost fallacy describes why crisis teams sometimes struggle to change their course of action. It describes our tendency to continue our course of action if we have already invested time, effort, or money into it. Even if the current costs outweigh the presumed benefits. Loss aversion and commitment bias explain the existence of the sunk-cost fallacy. Awareness and an outsider’s view could help to overcome the sunk-cost fallacy.


The premortem is designed by Gary Klein and can be used during a crisis in which there is a bit of time to review the (proposed) course of action. In a premortem, the crisis management team needs to assume that the course of action fails. The team members’ task is to generate plausible reasons for the failure. This helps the team to identify potential problems that could be overlooked when the team would use ordinary foresight.

Recognition-primed decision making

Experienced professionals are likely to use a recognition primed model of decision making when they have to make decisions under pressure and uncertainty. According to RPD, professionals working under time pressure and uncertainty possess the ability, on the basis of a number of indicators, to recognize a new situation and subsequently to choose an approach which, in a similar situation in the past, has worked satisfactorily. RPD usually leads to effective decisions but can result in sub-optimal outcomes in situations that are atypical. The model also indicates professionals can hardly deviate from their standard operating procedures when working under pressure.


Meaning making is one step of the crisis management process for public leaders as described by Arjen Boin and others. It is about reducing the uncertainty caused by a crisis by communicating a compelling storyline to the stakeholders involved in the crisis. This narrative includes questions like what happened and why, what are the consequences, and what can be expected towards the future. It is assumed that meaning-making is more important for the perceived effectiveness of the crisis management response than the effectiveness of the decisions taken by the crisis management team.

Situational awareness

Situation awareness is a critical foundation for decision-making during crises and it is about how crisis managers perceive their environment. It consists of three consecutive levels. Level 1 is about the sensory perception of the elements in the environment. Level 2 is about comprehension of the situation. Level 3 includes an understanding of what will happen next based on the perceived situation.

What you rarely do, you rarely do well

Originally, this is a Dutch saying from applied research professor Menno van Duin which does not nicely translate to English. Either way, it is based on recognition-primed decision-making (see above) and emphasizes that crisis procedures and plans should follow routine behavior as much as possible. Reason: what you rarely do, you rarely do well. Hence, do not develop procedures that are only to be used during a crisis.

Stealing Thunder

This disputed theory assumes that when organizations self-disclose a crisis – instead of the crisis being discovered by the media or other interested parties – it has more control over the framing and hence how the crisis is perceived amongst the most important stakeholder groups. Organizations that 'stole thunder', are perceived as more credible according to research. Furthermore, stealing thunder is associated with more positively framed media stories and headlines. The theory is not always supported by empirical evidence and its effectiveness is found to be mediated by other factors. If you want to know more about stealing thunder, consider our related articles on trust and reputation following a data breach.

Thomas theorem

Defined by Thomas and Thomas, the theorem is: “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences”. Another put, the theorem states that the interpretation of a situation causes the action. This interpretation is not objective but is affected by someone’s perception. The Thomas theorem reminds us that we should consider the perception of various stakeholder groups as facts, whether they are accurate or not.

Battle rhythm

The observation as described by Bert Brugghemans – chief fire commissioner of the Antwerp Fire Brigade – and two colleagues in a well-written book (sorry, not in English). It postulates that during a crisis, strategic, tactical, and operational crisis management teams tend to intensify the frequency of their communications to shorten and close the feedback loop.

Cynefin framework

The Cynefin (pronounced as ku-ne-vin) framework is a problem-solving tool. It helps you to assess the situation more accurately and respond appropriately. It differentiates between 5 different decision-making contexts (obvious contexts, complicated contexts, complex contexts, chaotic contexts, and disorder) each with its own appropriate response strategy.


A gold-silver-bronze command structure is a command hierarchy used for crisis management by the UK emergency services. It relates to the strategic-tactical-operational command triad. The gold commander is in overall control of their organization’s resources at the incident and deals with the strategic issues related to the crisis. The silver commander is the tactical commander who manages the tactical implementation following the strategic direction given by Gold and makes it into sets of actions that are completed by Bronze. A bronze commander directly controls an organization's resources at the incident and will be found with their staff working at the scene

Out-of-band communication

In case of a large cyber breach, it can become impossible to keep on using communication means that are used on a daily basis such as e-mail, video conferencing, and digital telephony. Larger organizations are therefore advised to have out-of-band communication tooling at their disposal: a tool that is not connected to the company’s core network and can also be used when the network is not available anymore.

Distributed decision-making

Contrary to popular belief, top-down decision-making does influence operational decision-making only to a limited extent. This can be explained by distributed decision-making. As crises always involve time pressure and uncertainty, decision-makers cannot wait for higher-echelon decision-makers to obtain an accurate understanding of the situation and make informed decisions. Self-direction, self-initiative, and emergence are therefore standard recurring aspects of every crisis.

Common Operational Picture

The common operational picture is used to overcome coordination and information management problems in crisis management. It is manifested as a visual representation of the situation (can be a map or a drawing) combined with a checklist that described the characteristics of the crisis response operation.

Battle or scenario cards

Battle cards or scenario cards are checklists specifically designed for crisis management purposes. They usually contain scenario-specific information, considerations, and attention points that can be used to inform decision-making during a crisis. They can be used for any crisis, ranging from ransomware, subway tunnel fires to floods. Operational, tactical, and strategic decision makers commonly have their own battle or scenario cards.


Metacognition is defined as the awareness of one’s own cognitive processes, often involving a conscious attempt to control them. During a crisis, metacognition is an important crisis management skill. Metacognitive skills can be trained. For instance, when crisis managers feel and recognize they are aroused, they can apply stress-reducing activities such as tactical breathing.


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