Unconventional Crisis: Parameters

Boundary Condition #1 (2)

          “Conventional crises rarely require high levels of inbuilt resiliency from our systems. This is because such events tend to affect circumscribed “ground zeros,” and therefore can be tackled by bringing to bear the “normal” assets and strategies of the unscathed outside on the impacted area.  On the other hand, catastrophic or hyper-complex events will destabilize entire systems, forcing leaders and public alike to abandon “normality” altogether, and look for a coherent fallback position. However, it is eminently difficult to organize an orderly general retreat, especially when leaders must redefine a new line of defense while on the run, and from the ground up. Miracles at Dunkirk are precisely that: miracles. Even before the planning phase, and more fundamentally, the makeup of our systems itself must anticipate the destabilizing effects of unconventional events by weaving resiliencies (visible or “hidden”) into their fabric.” Erwan Lagadec


Unconventional Crisis was discussed briefly in the previous post which introduced the four boundary conditions for PWH 2011 effort.  Indeed, it is really the driving element. While 2010: The Earth Strikes Back summarized UC-type incidents in the past year, here we will provide more in depth explanation.


In the 2007 Unconventional Crises, Unconventional Responses: Reforming Leadership in the Age of Catastrophic Crises and Hypercomplexity, Erwan Lagedec noted that In recent history, there is no doubt that the “three horsemen of the Apocalypse” best illustrating the impact and consequences of catastrophic events, for leaders, analysts, and popular culture alike, are September 11, the 2004 Tsunami, and Hurricane Katrina. Most certainly, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti easily qualifies as the fourth horsemen.

As Lagadec begins

Recent catastrophic crises repeatedly have overwhelmed traditional mechanisms for crisis planning and management, and made them instantly obsolete, in several respects.

  • The challenge of the “unthinkable” – This series of events has clearly shown that complex Western societies today are not equipped to confront major crises effectively…
  • The culture of leaders – Generally speaking, in all countries and sectors, they have proved culturally incapable of taking the “unthinkable” seriously, let alone react effectively when it actually occurred…
  • The identity of leaders – The public sector’s traditional monopoly on planning and response efforts time and again has shown its limits when confronted with unconventional events. The priority now must be to define new allocations of tasks and responsibilities among the public, private, and humanitarian sectors, as well as the wider…
  • Complex maps of actors – Catastrophic crises systematically involve an enormous variety of stakeholders, on an international scale. These include spontaneous, unanticipated coalitions … that can wield extraordinary and unexpected power, especially through the channels of “old” and “new” media alike
  • New processes for crisis recovery – Today’s unconventional crises generally do not contrast a single “Ground Zero” with an unscathed “outside” from which response can be safely organized: on the contrary, they destabilize systems in their entirety.

Therefore, instead of a clear succession of phases from planning to response to reconstruction (each under the leadership of a different agent, which withdraws and transitions to the next when its job is done), leaders now must tackle the three together, in other words build reconstruction dynamics into their contingency plans (as events in Iraq demonstrated) – all the while taking into account that leaders and responders themselves might be among the victims of unconventional crises.

We must ask what accounts for whether the first response process will be able to provide effective mitigation of unfolding disaster incidents. How can that effort best be organized to respond to significant emergencies? What must be done in advance to create the capacities needed in the face of disasters?  To start, we must recognize the differences between crisis/disaster types and the different set of challenges in planning, execution, and required forms of leadership.  Additionally, we must accept that we will most probably require new and innovative analytical methods and metrics

Dependent upon your source, there are multiple and overlapping terms defining the various levels of the “threat environment” in use for emergency management – planning, mitigation recovery.  Here we  will distinguish between the following conventions:

  1. Routine Emergencies and Conventional disasters. 
  2. Unconventional/hypercomplex disasters and catastrophes

Each presents a different set of challenges in both planning and execution and requires consideration of different forms of leadership and decision making.  There will be differences in agencies involved, forms of organization, in skills required and skill building at various levels and, resourcing and preparation.  In addition, as events become worse, political and value choices must be addressed and response will now include the private sector, non-profit organizations and spontaneous communal action. This paper submits that the differences are such that these sometime low probability – high impact, or absolute certainty low predictability events require a unique planning and response strategy.

For our purposes, strategy and thinking strategically is:

  • to identify priorities, translating those priorities into goals to be achieved, and developing a plan to achieve them by matching goals with resources and figuring out how and when to use those resources to best advantage.
  • to understand how an action or an event impacts on your priorities, goals and plan; and if the impact is negative, working out how to remedy the situation.
  • to recognize how significantly strategy is impacted by how well the environment of struggle is understood and how well we can adapt to shifting, sometimes non-predictable circumstance. (Ellis, Aaron, 2010)

Routine Emergencies and Conventional disasters.

Many types of emergencies occur every day and are routinely mitigated by local first responders.  In certain areas hurricanes, flooding, earthquakes and fire are seasonal or typical of the area.  The manifestation is well understood and planning well thought out and resourced.  While they move past routine emergencies based on magnitude of destruction and/or significant loss of life, physical response assistance goes no higher than county or state mutual aid and need for federal assistance is basically limited to financial aid.  Command and control during the event and recovery follows the locally developed “playbook.”  A Category 3 level (CAT 3) hurricane is a good example of a large emergency or conventional level disaster event, with potential for significant damage, yet normally well understood with only small possibility of response being overwhelmed at the local level.

For routine/conventional disaster consider the following:

  • Overall understanding of the nature of the situation is high and so knowledge of facts and what needs to be observed is high.
  • Decision makers have high correlation of the event with past experience, quickly recognize patterns that trigger response decisions.  This is Recognition Primed Decision Making (RPDM)
  • Playbooks and included scripts of action are valid requiring little customization
  • Functional organizations, skills required vs. trained in skills have high correlation and mitigating action can be implemented with high confidence of success
  • Leadership within the Incident Command System is well understood and established for effective, efficient, operations conduct with minimum risk associated.

Unconventional/hyper-complex disasters/catastrophic events 

Researchers note that there are “disasters that go beyond typical disasters.” The latter have come to be noted as “catastrophes.”  Most notably would be 9/11, the 2004 Tsunami, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and in 2010, the earthquakes in Haiti and the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.

By virtue of unusual scale, a previously unknown cause, or an atypical combination of sources, responders face challenges that are indeed novel, the facts and implications of which cannot be completely assimilated in the moment of crisis. (Leonard and Howitt, 2007)

These events are not only characterized by high stakes—the likelihood of major losses (to life, limb, property, heritage, or other highly valued social or private assets) – but they have shared striking similarities, inasmuch as they foster destabilization of leaders in charge of response and reconstruction efforts, and the whole of communities. (Lagadec, 2007)

Catastrophes generally exhibit a high level of uncertainty about just what the outcomes will be and a high degree of contingency - significant variability in the possible outcomes that may result under different choices of action. Much is at stake, and the results will depend on what we do—but we do not know for certain which course of action will be best.

These events are thus distinguished from more familiar or routine emergencies and conventional disasters by the presence of significantly new circumstances and different kinds of intellectual challenges, thus the use of the terminology unconventional crises. (Lagadec, 2007, 2009)

The main characteristic of unconventional events is that they are exceedingly difficult to map. This can be due to (a) the technical complexity of response efforts; (b) an unusually complex geography of affected areas; (c) the potential for a crisis suddenly to affect systems and interests that initially seemed remote ; (d) a bewildering kaleidoscope of stakeholders; or (e) confusing, overwhelming, or, conversely, insufficient information. With high degree of difficulty in “mapping” the operational environment, we now require decision making under circumstance with hyper complex characteristics or parameters:

  1. Most or all of the community built structure is heavily impacted.  In addition, in catastrophes, the facilities and operational bases of most emergency organizations are themselves usually hit.
  2. Local officials are unable to undertake their usual work role, and this often extends into the recovery period. Related to the observation just made, local personnel specializing in catastrophic situations are often unable for some time, both right after impact and into the recovery period, to carry out their formal and organizational work roles. Many leadership roles may have to be taken by outsiders to the community. 
  3. There may not be a “ground zero” with an unscathed reasonable proximity “outside” from which response can be safely organized.  Help from nearby communities cannot be provided.  Many nearby communities not only cannot contribute to the inflow, but they themselves can become competing sources for an eventual unequal inflow of goods, personnel, supplies and communication
  4.  Most, if not all, of the everyday community functions are sharply and concurrently interrupted.
  5. The presence of significant novelty implies that understanding of the situation, at least at the outset, will be relatively low, and that there will be no executable playbook/script or routine that is known or identifiable and that provides a comprehensive, reliable, and fully adequate response. Existing routines are inadequate or even counter-productive. Dealing with a crisis emergency thus means that the response will necessarily operate beyond the boundary of planned and resourced capabilities. It will necessarily be unplanned (or, at least, incompletely planned), and the resources and capabilities will generally be (or seem) inadequate.
  6. By their inherent nature – high stakes, urgency, and associated fear and stress—unconventional disaster events are necessarily political as well as operational matters. All disasters of course involve, at a minimum, local political considerations, but here the political and mass media arenas become even more important.   And it is a radically different situation when the national government and the very top officials become directly involved.  Diffusion of rumor is high, organizational weaknesses of responding organizations surface and questions of “who’s in charge?” reiterated.  In significant crisis events, both political and operational officials will have important—and different—roles to play.  Hyper complex unconventional catastrophe events, in which the operational decision makers and responders are operating beyond the bounds of what they have planned, practiced, and are resourced for—will necessarily confront senior decision makers with conflicts of values. Values are intrinsically political in nature and should involve determinations by people with the political legitimacy to authorize, warrant, and defend the choices made.
  7. If the true nature of the crisis is emergent vice immediately recognizable – difficulty in recognizing the novelty and therefore a break from normal operating pattern required – responders and decision makers may fail to note serious inadequacies or need for assistance.  Not only will all the other factors impact the decision/response process but the emergent challenges arise in context of organizations and teams that are already deployed within the operational response.
(Lagadec, 2009, Leonard and Howitt, 2007, Quarantelli, 2006, Von Lubitz, 2009, PWH articles, 2006-2010)

How these parameters impact decision making is the subject of the next post.



 Lagedec, Erwan, Unconventional Crises, Unconventional Responses: Reforming Leadership in the Age of Catastrophic Crises and Hypercomplexity, Center for Transatlantic Relations – The Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, The Johns Hopkins University, Washington, D.c., 2007

Also see follow-on post – Unconventional Crisis (3): Impact on Decision Making

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