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Nimble at the Turning Point

When faced with a crisis, will your organization have the capacity to be ‘nimble’ in its response? And can you know in advance whether it will?

The photo above, which I captured four years ago (children's faces blurred for privacy), was taken at a school during an actual campus threat.

Recognize that this image, which shows children huddled together under tables, their bags scattered where they'd left them, is barely a hint of the full sensory overload experienced in such situations. Try to imagine the barrage of sounds and sensations - helicopters circling just overhead, vehicles arriving with sirens wailing, dozens of responders yelling into radios, terrified kids glancing back and forth for signs of reassurance, and teachers and administrators each grasping to understand the crisis they're suddenly confronting.

The word ‘crisis’ has Latin roots, drawn from words that mean ‘turning point’. A crisis is therefore a change in course; of perhaps a course of events, of expected outcomes, or otherwise.

For this school, the pictured event was by all measures a turning point. As far as crises go, campus threat scenarios are among the most high-intensity because of how they unfold and how divergent they are from 'normal'. They are events for which the operational actions of individuals have as much an influence on the course of outcomes as do any strategic actions and decisions made at the organizational level.

Thankfully, although the perpetrator was not apprehended, there were only minor injuries sustained by a staff member who had engaged them. And among the incredible acts of heroism that were gradually captured in the stories that followed, so was the realization that it was not the quality or accuracy of plans and policies that got the school safely through this event. Rather, it was the adaptability and split-second decision making of individuals who felt empowered to act.

We often place undue faith in plans, SOPs, and frameworks, equating their existence with 'capacity'. In doing so we underestimate the degree to which scenario variability can render such plans inadequate, and downplay the extent to which the 'human factors' of response can serve as hidden obstacles or superpowers.

Crises, and their associated uncertainty, knock us out of our comfort zones. Faced with a threat or challenge, whether physical, mental, or emotional, our bodies respond by tapping evolutionary defenses, namely by releasing a surge of adrenaline. The experience is unique to the individual, and generally includes changes in perception, thinking, and behavior.

Years before the pictured event, my wife and I had been the target of a random shooter. As a rapid succession of bullets created tiny bursts of dust on the pavement and in the leaves around us, we acquired what we both experienced to be ‘super-human speed and endurance’. Maybe nothing about our abilities actually changed, but that day we both felt as if we could have taken Usain Bolt in a sprint. Whatever it was, it worked in bringing that crisis to a desirable outcome, though only later could we fully appreciate the danger we'd dealt with or the decisions we had made.

The day of the lockdown, this adrenaline surge resulted in more of a ‘caged’ feeling for me, something I later attributed to possessing only limited knowledge of my expected role in steering that crisis (given that I was parent, and thus an 'outsider' to the organization and its plans and procedures).

As calm as the children might seem, they too were affected in differing ways by this chemical process. Among those near me, I witnessed one child soil themselves and another calmly asking the child next to them, “do you think it’ll hurt when we get shot?” Yet they did exactly as they'd been instructed to do.

The teachers, who were also terrified, understood in that moment the scale and scope of their responsibility. And in accepting what they believed to be their charge (despite never having experienced an actual workplace violence event previously), transcended that fear in order to keep the kids calm while they waited for the situation to evolve.

I witnessed first hand that these teachers received no external instruction for most of the incident, and they were operating on very incomplete information. They felt empowered to 'do the right thing', even though this event was very different from what they had exercised in all previous drills.

I have little doubt that, as the adults in that room, we each would have done heroic things to protect those kids had the perpetrator burst in (in addition to the threat to myself, I had three kids at the school that day – two there with me in the cafeteria (pictured)). And I add this not as some curiosity or even boast, but rather because it became highly relevant a few weeks ago when I received the following warning by text message (omitting details on the institution):

“Active Threat: Report of Armed Assailant at [removed]. MALE PUSHING WHEELCHAIR AND HOLDING A RIFLE. This is not a drill: Initiate immediate protective actions. If confronted, RUN, HIDE, FIGHT.”

Try to imagine the deserved praise that would be heaped on any hero who selflessly confronted such a threat, especially on a school campus but true anywhere.

It would be well deserved, because that rifle presented a clear threat to their own safety. I hope I would have had the courage to do so myself, or that a group of us would have acted together to do so. I wasn't anywhere near where the area described, but could imagine what those nearby must have been thinking.

Then, just under 4 minutes later, I received the following alert:


I can't help but consider how incredibly unlucky, and then lucky, this unwitting person who was simply pushing a wheelchair while staying prepared for a possible rain shower, was that day. Unlucky to find themselves the potential target of unintentional heroic action, and then lucky to have escaped unharmed.

And I can't help but wonder how, had the organization's response not been so incredibly fast, this ‘turning point’ could have pointed to a much different (and needlessly tragic) resolution.

Were that to have happened, what accountability would the institution have faced for having issued the warning? What would the investigation find?

And what lifelong impact would the dispatcher or alert issuer have for the part they played?

Four minutes pass remarkably fast. In that time, a team would have had to coordinate almost seamlessly, from issuing the initial warning, to responding to the location of the threat, visually identifying and assessing the possible perpetrator or perpetrators, confirming this was in fact the person in question, reporting their findings to incident command, confirm the need for redaction, call off interventions, and redacting the warning.

Are your staff not only prepared, but also empowered to act so nimbly?

Inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi are the Greek words meaning 'Know Thyself', a maxim of such great importance as to represent a pillar of strength in that ancient society. It is no less true or important today, yet remains remarkably difficult to achieve.

Although only the reality of an actual event (or 'near miss' - see The Good and Bad of False Alerts) will fully reveal capacity, organizations can make great strides in determining their resilience by engaging with an unbiased and trusted partner. External auditors (notwithstanding the negative connotation that comes with the term 'adit') offer a valuable assessment of any organization's capacity to manage uncertainty.

I have worked with several academic organizations (universities, colleges, and private schools) on capacity assessment, and have found that while some aspects of capacity can be determined internally through interviews, performance measures, or surveys, there are cultural and organizational barriers to self-reflection.

Lead among the many reasons for this is that people who are concerned about what supervisors or peers might learn about them will be biased in their responses - whether intentionally or unintentionally - thereby providing an overly positive assessment. To answer honestly, people need a channel by which they can feel safe, and can speak with candor without fear of reprisal or of causing harm to others. Every one of us is prone to this, because in many cases we are acting on altruistic impulses. It's hard to criticize people we care about, even if doing so would be better for ourselves or for the institution as a whole. We rightfully feel beholden to those we work with and socialize with.

That, in a nutshell, is the spirit of an external audit. To know thyself, in earnest. To allow oneself to be handed a mirror, accepting that we may not be happy with everything we see in the reflection. And, to gain the knowledge and confidence that your organization, when faced with each possible positive or negative turning point, will be nimble enough to end up exactly where it needs to.


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