THE BLOG
09/22/2010 02:56 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Don't Let Your Next Crisis Go to Waste

Cross-posted from Harvard Business Online

We're all familiar with the many examples of spectacular human and organizational response to crisis situations -- such as that in the wake of the earthquake in Haiti, the recent wildfires in Colorado, or the floods in Pakistan. In a matter of moments total strangers feel connected, people around the world reach out with physical or financial support, and red tape falls by the wayside in the service of getting things done creatively and quickly. But what happens after the crisis fades, the adrenaline rush dissipates, and people turn their attention back to their daily lives?

The reality is that despite our best intentions, most people (and organizations) can't sustain the energy of a crisis environment. If the challenges go on for too long they start to become routine. People who stay with it either get burnt out, cynical, or disheartened; and for those not involved on a day-to-day basis, the crisis fades into the background.

The current situation in Haiti is a sobering example of this phenomenon. The immediate aftermath of the quake saw global mobilization of fundraising efforts and the arrival of hundreds of volunteers in Port-au-Prince . But despite all of that early energy, eight months later less than 2% of the 33 million cubic yards of debris have been cleared, preventing widespread reconstruction and resettlement of the population. And how many of us still think about what we can do to help Haiti?

According to news reports, the lack of progress in Haiti is due not just to a shortage of funds, but also to the reemergence of a bureaucracy that seemed to be temporarily suspended in the early days of the crisis. There is no overall plan for debris removal; property records are in disarray; strategies for sifting, decontaminating, and relocating the debris have not been made; coordination has been poor between NGO's; and no one official in the government is in charge of the overall program. In other words, although the situation in Haiti continues to be dire, the crisis dynamics have been replaced by business as usual.

Unfortunately we see this pattern over and over in organizations. People jump to respond to floods and snowstorms, urgent customer problems, financial challenges, or competitive moves. Levels of collaboration and creativity rise; a sense of urgency pervades the workplace; and everyone pitches in to resolve the problem or achieve the goal. But when the crisis passes, things revert to normal. The crisis becomes a part of the company's folklore rather than a step towards lasting performance.

But it doesn't have to be this way, either in Haiti or in your organization. You can capture the spirit and energy of a crisis and use it not only to achieve the immediate goal, but also to build new patterns of achievement over time. If you and your team have recently experienced a surge of performance due to a crisis, special deadline, or extraordinary challenge, consider taking the following steps:

1) Organize a post-crisis learning clinic. Include the key people who were involved -- from your team, other parts of your organization, and even outside parties. Take stock of what you learned: What was done differently? What new patterns or innovations were sparked by the crisis? And most importantly, what new ways of working -- individually or collectively -- should be continued?

2) Identify a critical initiative that you want to accelerate. Carve out a stretch goal that will demonstrate progress in 100 days or less -- and then consciously apply one or more of the new patterns to it. Use the next 100 days as a real-time experiment to build the new innovations into your team's muscle memory, while also generating additional learning from the 100-day challenge.

Crises create new working patterns spontaneously -- but without conscious effort, these innovations cannot be sustained, which may be what's happening in Haiti. To counter this lost opportunity, managers need to extract lessons from the crisis experience and then continue the learning process through a series of short-term challenges.

What's your experience with building new capability from a crisis?