Lock the Doors… and Leave me Alone!

The morning of Saturday 1st Feb 2003… when Space Shuttle Columbia burnt up on its re-entry, Entry Flight Director LeRoy Cain was the man to issue one of the most dreaded commands in the Flight Control Operations Handbook. At 9:12 a.m., Cain instructed Ground Control Officer Bill Foster to “lock the doors”. An order that conveys that no one from the flight control crew can leave the building and every little detail of actions and decisions taken should be logged and every byte of data preserved for further investigation.

Every crisis needs a review and that’s precisely what the Lock the Doors command triggers. As intimidating as it sounds, Lock the Doors is an inherently empowering command that tells everyone from the Janitor to the Mission Director that they are important to the mission. It drives the sense of collective ownership and responsibility in dealing with the crisis on hand.

Corporate Boardrooms that we are familiar with, have their own versions of Lock the Doors, and it is probably the most often misinterpreted technique picked up by Crisis Managers. When dealing with a crisis, though we don’t hear the CXOs giving out the commands on a PA system like Cain did, we do witness actions and strategies to that effect. Following are a few ‘crisis management interventions’ I have observed or been party to…and I hope these are just exaggerated exceptions and not a norm. 🙂

  • Lock the doors and everyone stays out. I need to focus.
  • Lock the doors and keep every other idea out. Let mine be the one.
  • Lock the doors and spend no money. Ask me if you have to.
  • Lock the doors and make no decisions. It’s my way or No way.

Irrespective of the cause, nature and size of the Crisis, the shift towards a less empowering and more centralized design has been an often preferred method for dealing with a crisis. An artificial sense of control prevails when every little detail and every single decision is routed to and through the Captain of the ship. What the Captain does with the flashflood of information and data on his desk is anybody’s guess!

The triggering of the ‘Kill Switch’ that instantly shuts down an empowered structure is almost magical when it occurs. And every organization has a handy Kill Switch hidden in some corner office. A fundamental sense of optimism is replaced with an amplified sense of caution and doubt on capabilities.

While occupying the Top Seat during a crisis, it might seem easier to autonomously decide rather than validate and moderate decisions that rest of the system takes. It’s interesting how the otherwise hierarchy-conscious individuals silently allow this shift of power and accept the unannounced removal of circles of authority around them. When all decisions and direction setting gravitate towards the Top Seat, its no surprise that Situation Room discussions become sermons.

Well…to be fair…I often wonder what’s wrong if the Top Seat takes charge of a crisis and relieves others in the system. Must be easier on the others…right? The only issue I see is that of competency and bandwidth. It sure is bullish to expect that someone is equally competent across all functions, departments and processes to just jump in and take over. Everyone has a monster or two under the bed that they haven’t tamed yet or don’t intend to tame. And isn’t that why in the first place we painstakingly identify people with varied expertise to be part of the system?

Despite all the expertise around, organizations are only as ready to deal with a crisis as CXOs are ready to deal with their empowered structures or the removal of it. And if someone would ever author a Corporate Crisis Support Handbook, guess the first chapter would be about methods to protect empowered structures and not invite autocracy in the name of Crisis Management.

After all…The Power of the Situation Room is in the Collective Capability of its Occupants.

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