“Great in a Crisis!” – A simple Crisis Management Model for leaders

Article by Ken Thompson, last updated April 2020

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Expanded version of this article now available as a 50-page mini book: https://businesssimulations.com/books/great-in-a-crisis


In my private pilot days, whenever I was under pressure (which was most of the time) my instructor would simply remind me to “Aviate-Navigate-Communicate”. First, fly the plane – if you lose airspeed or altitude then nothing else matters! Secondly, try and make sure you are heading in the right/safe direction and avoiding other traffic in the vicinity. Thirdly, and only when you have taken care of the other two, get on the radio and seek any clearances or guidance you might need.

I think this concept “Aviate-Navigate-Communicate” can be applied in any situation where you or your team are under pressure by generalising it to “Operate-Navigate-Communicate”. You can think of each of these 3 perspectives as a hierarchy of needs (like Maslow’s) with Operate at the most fundamental level, then Navigate, then Communicate as shown in the infographic below which also shows 7 essential skills, 14 useful tools and 7 important principles. 

Great in a Crisis Model

To download a high resolution version of this infographic click here

The Best Crisis Management is Avoidance

The core assumption of this paper is that the crisis has already happened. Obviously the best crisis management is crisis avoidance or crisis mitigation through proactive Risk Management, Business/Project Governance and Business Continuity Planning. There are numerous references on these topics on the web, for example, “Test your Risk Management skills in a Business Simulator” and "Top leaders have 3 interlocking Early Warning Systems - What about you?"

A Crisis Management Model for Leaders

In this article I will suggest:

  • 7 foundational principles
  • 3 key perspectives
  • 7 essential skills
  • 14 useful tools

to help you in being a leader who is known for being “Great in a Crisis”.

7 Key Crisis Management Principles

Before we start to explore the model it may be helpful to establish some important principles for being “great in a crisis”. I suggest these 7 principles as a good start point:

1. Procedures & Checklists

Find, study and use the relevant procedures and checklists. Make sure you have the latest versions. If you don’t have time to read them get somebody else you trust to do it for you and be your advisor.

2. Crisis Team

Resist the temptation to save time by keeping it to yourself – get the right team around you as a priority. Read more about this in the model.

3. Denial

It is very easy to be in denial that there is a crisis and thus lose vital time. Recognition / acknowledgement of a crisis is not the same thing as communication about a crisis which comes later. 

4. Bad News

Be aware that as a team leader your behaviour and body language may discourage your team members from sharing bad news with you in a timely manner for fear of “shoot the messenger”. You must make it clear through what you say and how you behave that you want all news quickly no matter how uncomfortable it is. 

5. Transparency

In our modern digital era people expect much greater transparency and openness from the organizations who serve them. Keep this in mind at all times. Also remember it is better for you to reveal “uncomfortable facts” than to have somebody external dig it up later and put their own spin on it - which they will!

6. Communications

Put somebody you trust in charge of external communications right from the start. Their first priority is to identify who will need to know – i.e. who are the key stakeholders outside your crisis team? This must cover stakeholders who are both internal and external to your organization. Read more about this in the model.

7. Discussion & Debate

You will need to think very carefully about Who and When but If you find yourself debating What and How then you are probably making a mistake. You don't have the time to do this in a crisis and this will also lead to confusion and costly mistakes. Refer to point 1.

The Crisis Management Model in more detail 

Level 1 - Operate

Operate is about taking care of those things which are critical or essential to the success of the enterprise or venture. If these things not addressed properly and in a timely manner there is a high risk of financial, legal or reputational damage. Safety of staff and/or customers could also be at risk.

Operate: Key Skills and Useful Tools 

Key Skills Useful Tools*
Focus Sterile Cockpit
Calm Concentration
Collaborate Rapid Teaming
Effective Operational Meetings
Execute Commitment Management
Effective Tracking

*See Further Reading section at end

Level 2 – Navigate

Navigate concerns knowing exactly where you are and where you are heading in terms of both your strategic goals and your tactical operational plan for addressing the crisis.

Navigate: Key Skills and Useful Tools 

Key Skills Useful Tools*
Plan Knowns/Unknowns Grid
“Five Whys” Analysis
Decide “Three Circles” Technique
Effective Decision-making

*See Further Reading section at end

Level 3 – Communicate

Communicate is about how we obtain and process all the information which we need to manage the crisis and also how we communicate with our key stakeholders what is happening and what we are doing to resolve the situation.

Communicate: Key Skills and Useful Tools 

Key Skills Useful Tools*
Listen Information Filtering
Ladder of Inference
Tell Stakeholder Management
Critical Communication Skills

*See Further Reading section at end

Crisis Management and Simulations

Two other things I learned from flying which are very relevant to crises are “Right first time is not a credible strategy” and “Practice makes Perfect”. Business Simulations (computer or paper-based) are excellent tools for putting teams under pressure in simulated crises in a safe environment where mistakes don’t cost lives or jobs. 

An effective crisis management Simulation could be off-the-shelf or custom-designed provide you have access to the relevant subject matter experts. They can be computer-based or paper-based.  “Hybrid” Simulations which blend computer and paper-based approaches are often even more effective. The simulations will usually be based around a detailed evolving scenario involving one or more major situations/incidents and could be either an organisational crisis or a more project-based crisis. 

To be effective a crisis simulation will usually have many of the following additional elements:

  • Time pressure and/or deadline changes 
  • Constantly Changing environment  
  • Multiple information channels - hard copy, electronic info, spoken announcements
  • Simulated News/Information Feeds (e.g. tickers) and social media feeds 
  • Role Plays and off-sim exercises
  • Use of actors and/or video segments

Our portfolio of Business Simulators in this area include XSIM (fixed organisational scenario), SPREAD (customisable project scenario) and Pulse Simulations (customisable project scenario).

Want to know more about Business Planning & Risk?
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You can purchase the full paperback version of the mini book (50 pages) with a full explanation of each of the 14 tools here.

Further Reading on the 14 Tools listed for Crisis Management

NOTE: All references, except where otherwise stated, are to “A Systematic Guide to Project Management” by Ken Thompson and Paul Hookham, published May 2018.

1. Sterile Cockpit

“Sterile Cockpit - Maintain Focus!”, "A Systematic Guide to Project Management", Pages 50-51

2. Calm Concentration

The power of calm concentration – the unfashionable but essential mental skill


3. Rapid Teaming

“Team Development”, "A Systematic Guide to Project Management", Pages 128-136

4. Effective Operational Meetings

A Systematic Guide to High Performing Teams”, by Ken Thompson,  published Dec 2015, Pages 51-55

5. Commitment Management

“Commitment Management”, "A Systematic Guide to Project Management", Pages 82-89

6. Effective Tracking

“Monitoring, Measuring & Tracking”, "A Systematic Guide to Project Management", Pages 70-81

7. Knowns/Unknowns Grid

 “Dealing with Uncertainty”, "A Systematic Guide to Project Management", Pages 31-33

8. “Five Whys” Analysis

A Systematic Guide to High Performing Teams”, by Ken Thompson,  published Dec 2015, Pages, 59-60

9. “Three Circles” Technique

Principle Centred Leadership by Stephen R. Covey, published Jan 1999

10. Effective Decision-making

A Systematic Guide to Collaboration and Competition within Organizations” by Ken Thompson,  published Feb 2017, Pages 151-155

11. Information Filtering

A Systematic Guide to Collaboration and Competition within Organizations” by Ken Thompson,  published Feb 2016, Pages 191-192

A Systematic Guide to Business Acumen and Leadership using Dilemmas” by Ken Thompson,  published Feb 2017, Pages 99-101

12. The Ladder of Inference

“A Systematic Guide to Collaboration and Competition within Organizations” by Ken Thompson,  published Feb 2017, Pages 137-139

13. Stakeholder Management

“Stakeholder Engagement”, "A Systematic Guide to Project Management", Pages 61-69

14. Critical Communication Skills

“Sponsor Communications”, "A Systematic Guide to Project Management", Pages 50-60

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Ken Thompson

Ken is a practitioner, author and speaker on Leadership, Collaborative Working, High Performing Teams, Change Management, Project Management and Business Acumen. His work has featured in major publications including The Guardian , Wired Magazine, The Huffington Post and The Henry Ford Magazine. Ken has also spoken at many international events including TEDx, the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI), Learn Tech (London) and NASA.

Ken is Founder of Business Simulations Ltd.

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