The Disabling Dozen (Part 1 of 2): Common Crisis Plan Impediments

Quick – what’s worse:  having no crisis plan, or having an unwieldy crisis plan?

Consider that the latter is worse for an organization that lets its fate ride solely on the contents of that plan, without cultivating an experienced team to execute its clunky contents.  In other words:  it’s a bad plan to trust only a plan; it’s disastrous if the written plan isn’t actionable. 

Crisis managers should review of their written plans against this checklist of worst practices to see if a re-write is due:


  1. A dense table of contents.  When a crisis strikes and a team is under some immediate pressure, they’ll want to crack open a plan’s first page and feel reassured.  Is that possible when staring at a multi-page, Roman numeric list with chapters, sub-heads and appendices?  Instead, scrap the textbook format in favor of a graphically simple “How To Use This Plan” which puts each subsequent page in context.
  2. Several opening pages of introduction.  Far too many crisis plans feature long-winded introductions, usually with an eye toward limiting the plan’s scope of responsibility (thereby covering the plan owner’s posterior).  If an introduction requires more than a few sentences, the organization and plan master probably need to align their crisis management beliefs before the plan is ever used.  Likewise, an ample definitions page is typically an omen of a poorly written plan, filled with jargon.
  3. Many unfamiliar roles and titles.  It’s fine to assign roles and titles to a handful of crisis management leaders (like the well-recognized Incident Commander post in emergency management).  But don’t get carried away.  Some crisis plans assign too many rigid roles to support staff, with titles ripped from Dungeons & Dragons.  Support staffers sometimes spend too much time obsessing over their new designation/title, instead of driving actions against deadlines.  It’s better for the crisis plan to direct what is needed and when.  The who can be assigned as needed by the leaders, who can also ensure deadlines are met. 
  4. Actions described through long narratives.  A crisis management plan must direct action.  It shouldn’t tell “the story of crisis management.”  Yet, that’s exactly what happens when plans are written in a Herman Melville narrative.  Better to:
    • Replace long, passive sentences with brief directives
    • Consider bullet-point phrases
  5. A one-size-fits-all approach.  Crises, like storm clouds, are unique in shape, content and color and you can never truly predict their full impact until they pass.  Each crisis requires a customized level of resource, strategic oversight and tactical support.  Yet many crisis plans rigidly prescribe approach to every crisis.  You may not need to command a well-stocked Situation Room with your full Jedi High Council right away.  Your plan should favor a modular approach that can scale resources up and down as needed.
  6. Granular action checklists.  Some crisis plans suffer from completism – prescribing every precise consideration when a certain scenario springs to life.  This approach is counterproductive and based in naiveté.  No matter how strong your clairvoyance, it’s impossible to predict every single need when advance-drafting a scenario plan.  It’s wise to provide top-line strategic and tactical considerations, but the plan must allow flexibility to deal with unpredictable (inevitable) plot twists. 
    • A related risk-management post by Thomas Bragg touches on this subject when he discusses “formal” and “informal” – which I take to mean “strict” vs. “flexible.”

Rather than break my own house rule on brevity of posts, I’ll provide impediments 7-12 in the next few days.  Until then, please feel free to comment, question or challenge this content in the comments below.

Update:  Part 2 is available here.

Update (Mar. 16):  These articles were also posted on

13 thoughts on “The Disabling Dozen (Part 1 of 2): Common Crisis Plan Impediments”

  1. Excellent list, J.D. I've seen so many plans that are not actionable (the perfect word). The teams that wrote the plans had good intentions but just didn't put themselves 'in the crisis' to evaluate how user friendly the final product really was. Thanks for the mention. I'm looking forward to the next installment!

    1. Thomas,
      That's exactly right — you offer a great litmus test for editing: "If I were in a crisis right now, what are the best parts of this page that would drive me to action."
      Thanks for participating.

  2. This is great. I like the numbered checklist format that this article is written in. It makes it easy to follow and easy to refer to. Towards that end, I wouldn't demonize "Granular action checklists" (number 6). I agree that plans and checklists shouldn't take a "one-size-fits-all" approach, but like this article, checklists provide a framework, and handy reminder to people who might not live the crisis plan on a day-to-day basis.

    1. Thanks, Jonathan.

      I love checklists. I just don't prefer the granular ones, for two concrete reasons: 1) they can limit flexibility, 2) they add density to the crisis plan (which, by its very length, can defend it against being read).

      I also have one abstract reason, tied to your last sentence: I have witnessed companies with "completionist" crisis plans take a relaxed approach to crisis TRAINING, perhaps because they feel that the plan itself has all the answers. Huge misstep.

      Thanks for participating!

  3. Right you are, JD. Without TRAINING, even the best-written crisis plan is useless. It's the training that provides the employee/user the guidance on what to do during a crisis. The plan, while integral to the company's compliance rules and regulations, provides the trained user 'reminders' of what's supposed to be done, when, and how. Under pressure, even the most skilled responder may forget or get sidetracked. Having an easy-to-use crisis plan saves time, initiates protocol when needed, and helps provides a pool of calm in what could be stormy situation.

  4. I like your approach! I have helped thousands of businesses recover operations and insurance money from the business interruption event. If the client has any DRP document, I review it to insert where to document activity and costs so their claim can recover all costs insured under their insurance program. I, too, take a common sense approach; get the point across and leave the details to the business people having responsibitlity over the areas. There is nothing more frustrating than to be micro-managed by a document that takes half a day to comprehend. Execution is everything! The better plans I have seen allow the flexibility for management to exercise alternatives when available. Too often, management is told by the insurance company that their claim will not be paid in full because management failed to take steps to reduce the loss of production or services. Nobody likes surprises on top of a disaster. I remove that "pot-hole" to help reduce the stress on people who have been through enough already. DRP's don't address the time, frustration and stress that builds for months until all is back to normal. Thanks!

  5. I have found your approach interesting – I agree you cannot plan for every eventuality and should not try to do so. Having viewed and assessed over 100 Emergency Plans for a previous employer we came down to one generic plan with a number of side plans – think of it as a tree and as we climb the trunk we are all moving in the same direction until we assess the Emergency then we move along the individual branches. By doing this at tleast we know the first actions will be what is required. I definately agree on a bullet point directive approach as very often staff involved will not be used to emergencies and therefore outside of their comfort zone and tend to be a little like sheep who need to be led and directed.
    Keep the plan simple while not forgetting they have to be audited therore the reasons why we do something are clear and there are those who will want to learn more.

    1. Thanks, Steve. I really like your trunk and branches blueprint…as long as there is some flexibility within each branch. But you've already stated that flexibility is important, so I believe we're fully in synch!

      Thanks for participating. Feel free to stop back any time to continue the dialogue. That's the main purpose of this blog.

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