304 North Cardinal St.
Dorchester Center, MA 02124

Work Hours
Monday to Friday: 7AM - 7PM
Weekend: 10AM - 5PM

“Never let a good crisis go to waste.”

                              – Winston Churchill

     Change management exists for projects because people tend to not change behaviour—not easily anyway. Its methodologies account for individual comfort and the reluctance or even resistance to disrupt it. So employees must be actively convinced and their behaviour “change managed” as needed.

     But what if the challenge was not to encourage and expedite behavioural change, but to temper, shape, and possibly even inhibit it? Are project and change managers prepared?

A crisis can invert the needs of and demands on a change leader

     Crisis creates conditions distinctly different from what we know and expect. Gaza—and Israel more broadly—and Ukraine are examples of this situation. (Though war is not the only form of crisis.) Across all types of crisis, most people’s DABDA response time gets exceptionally fast.[1] Resistance to change is replaced by frantic search and action to change… anything, everything, just so long as the crisis is abated.

(Dis)Comfort and Kübler-Ross

     Daniel Kahenman and Amos Tversky codified Loss Aversion bias when they introduced Prospect Theory. That is, people tend to value loss more than the prospect of equal gain.[2] For us, the bias is toward “comfort” with what we have rather than the discomfort of change. It is the driving notion beneath this assessment of change within crisis.

     Above, I raised the Kübler-Ross paradigm—most associated with the grieving process.[3] It’s relevant for change and related to loss aversion/comfort because grieving is, in fact, coming to terms with loss and accepting change. Whereas a grieving person moves through the process in his/her own time, in an organizational change, we try to accelerate it. Crisis forces further adjustment.

     When a crisis-driven transformation from Denial to Action happens, what unnatural muscles must the leader/manager flex? Sticking to the broad strokes, we’ll explore trained and circumstantial inclinations and more appropriate responses to three key effects of crisis on people and projects.

Crisis Warps Time

     Do things actually go faster in a crisis or just seem to? Apparent speed is the strongest force with which to contend. From it flow all other effects. When we feel, let alone are out of control, we lose connection to the situation. Unmoored, things feel foreign and dangerous. Our Flow is gone.[4] It is the exact opposite of being “in the zone,”[5] when tempo slows to “bullet time.”[6]

     The obvious, blanket response is: Slow down.[7] (Slow down? But there’s a crisis going on!) The U.S. Navy Seals say: “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.” That’s the slow for which to strive. Here are only three ways time creates discomfort.

Pressure to expedite the flight to comfort

     A crisis is discomforting and our natural tendency is to alleviate discomfort—fast. While there are many varieties of fast relief in projects, most roll-up into three classes.

  1. Do things without thinking.
  2. Do things sloppily.
  3. Don’t do things at all.

It’s arguable number one is worst and the other two derivative. On balance, it is still a good idea to think. And if you’re going to do something, do it well.

     Discomfort has merit and maybe should not be eliminated too quickly. At the very least, to a point it heightens our senses and sharpens our reflexes. Hopefully that makes it easier to be slow and smooth. Breathe.

Risk (What You’ll Want to Do)Response (What You’ll Need to Do)
Cut corners and do an “acceptable” job.Be vitally aware of how far action strays from “perfect”; do not tolerate cut corners piling up.

“Don’t think. React.” The truth here is only effective if the situation is truly emergent and one is trained. Most situations and most people are not; certainly most organizational projects are not.

Fast shifts in behaviour to relieve discomfort

     In a crisis, when Denial slopes toward Acceptance expect not mere willingness but eagerness to change. That’s not so bad,” you might think. Maybe. But individuals usually choose what seems best for them to relieve their discomfort. So we may end up not prodding action but steering it. Crises are known to create (both coherent and chaotic) stampedes. The leadership skills to deal with the energy of a stampede is much different than anything change and project managers are trained to expect.

Risk (What You’ll Want to Do)Response (What You’ll Need to Do)
Stop communicating since the change is made.Attend to those who have changed to ensure the change “sets” and the people feel good about it.

Heightened sensitivity leads to false clarity

     Be it a new concept or an instruction set, people often say they understand though they really do not. A crisis is no time for nuance or complication. First Aiders are taught: Be clear, Be direct, Be specific for a reason. As much as yesterday it was safe to assume smart people will act correctly from “obvious” context, in today’s crisis it is not. While time pressure makes you hope “they got it,” it’s extra important to validate communication and verify that what was intended has, in fact, been received.

Risk (What You’ll Want to Do)Response (What You’ll Need to Do)
Assume everyone is on your page.Test even after the change seems made to solidify common understanding.

Danger Narrows Focus

     Part of the time warp is an even more overwhelming attention to the immediate. Physiology changes when people are aroused. Among other things, pupils dilate and the field of vision narrows. Narrow focus is why we (well, me, anyway) lose our queen to an inferior player while closing in on checkmate. We don’t see threats in the periphery. Focus narrowing relates to both the field of play and the timeframe ahead of us.

Time perception and focus operate together. Want proof? Stare out the side window of a moving car. Focus narrowly on the foreground and the world careens past; look at the horizon and you experience… leisurely travel.

     Narrowed focus lends itself even more than hectic pace to responses that may feel like a relief but are probably errors.[8] The first casualties tend to be what has “impeded” things getting done in the past: governance, budget control, etc.

Curtailing governance with promises of effectiveness and speed

     Not even those who govern like Governance, the theatrical process. It eats time—and is often just an attempt to foist responsibility onto others.[9] Unfortunately(!): done right, governance is valuable and purposeful particularly in crises—and another place that benefits from “slow is smooth….”

     Governance can be sober second though. Wiser people, shallowly invested in immediate project activity, challenge thinking and decisions. That takes time, however, as it is all too often concerned with strategic and second order consequences (as it should). In a genuine crisis, such sobriety will also succumb to warping and narrowing. Being slower and often at odds with immediate relief, governance seems expendable.

     On the other hand, oversight and sober second thought will tend to narrow as well. Second-guessing of peripheral considerations gets dispensed with as luxuries. A once excessive governance process may be liberated into something efficient and meaningful.

Risk (What You’ll Want to Do)Response (What You’ll Need to Do)
Reduce or limit “useless” governance.Even if governance procedures are curtailed, maintain the effect of governance.

Grudging compliance masks delayed resistance

     Politically correct management/leadership methodologies suggest that resistance is a result of not understanding. So we invest time engaging and getting buy in. To each his own, but I challenge its value as a method at the best of times; in a crisis, it may be worse than useless.

     First off, in a crisis, everyone will be looking for relief. Leaders will not persistently debate merits of decisions and followers will set aside opposition (or most of it) for relief.[10] Second, in a crisis, leaders are likely to at least act as if they are self-governing. Authority and responsibility get wielded; orders are more likely. All things being equal, those being led are more willing to accept clear and unambiguous direction with less challenge.

     But one should not presume compliance means either acceptance or agreement. Many a person will go along to get along in the moment. Crisis amplifies that tendency. Any such change or action is built on a faulty foundation. It will remain tenuous indefinitely until corrected, no matter the amount of support built around it.

Risk (What You’ll Want to Do)Response (What You’ll Need to Do)
Assume this job is done and move to the next issue.Remain sensitive to grudging compliance; address it as if it were resistance.

Risk Tolerance Flexes in Crisis

     The situation and these forces tend to drive imperceptible shifts to risk management. If risk tolerance is not pushed to zero, climactic times often recalibrate risk acceptance higher.

     Crisis-induced retreat from any and all risk warrants a brief digression. Its impact will typically not be on a project because eliminating everything is supra-project. Besides, to the extent it is felt within a project, it is in the project/change managers’ wheelhouse: stakeholder engagement to overcome resistance. For our purpose, then, the concern is creeping risk tolerability.

     The issue is that risk is relative and circumstantial. If/when there are (existential) pressures of a crisis at the door, perception of a project’s risks naturally reflect that. Within the increased velocity and myopic view of a crisis, the real risk is that perception and acceptance of risk will be untethered from the organization’s broader, longer reality.

Risk (What You’ll Want to Do)Response (What You’ll Need to Do)
Arbitrarily and blindly allow more risk to creep in.Ensure risks are understood not on a single score but on the component basis (likelihood and impact). Keep risk parameters “real.”

Longer term considerations: the crisis will end

     As stated, every crisis will eventually end, abate, or be normalized. There will be an after time. That means longer term considerations of change resulting from within crisis. Whether they should be a concern in the moment is debatable.

     Still, at least some temporary crisis measures will survive to become standard. Whether planned that way or not, they will root and last. Countless relics of crisis persist. When it’s a process or a structure, that may be bad. When it’s behaviour and culture, it’s more probably bad.[11] Structure, conduct, and culture changed due to crisis (e.g., work from home—now post-pandemic) are like spontaneous genetic mutations that shift a species’ evolutionary trajectory.


     To a cool head able to fight instinct, a crisis can be a boon to change. For everyone else it is more likely to be confusing trauma both during and afterward. Leaders/project managers/change managers of any organizational project must have heightened awareness of the natural human tendencies that will be exposed and amplified by crisis. Use them or compensate for them as necessary.

     Institute X is a transformation leadership consultancy and transformational leader coaching firm. One of its online presences is The Change Playbook. Be sure to check out the abundance of practical and pragmatic guidance for all aspects of making change happen. Subscribe to be notified of new, fresh content.

[1]   DABDA – The Kübler-Ross stages of grieving that apply to personal crisis (and change management): Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Action.

[2]   Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1982). The psychology of preferences. Scientific American, 246 (1), 160-173.

[3]   Kubler-Ross, D., & Kessler, E. (2014). On grief and grieving. Simon & Schuster.

[4]   Csíkszentmihályi, M. (1992). Flow: The Psychology of Happiness.

[5]   Murphy, M. & White, R. (1995). In the Zone: Transcendent Experience in Sports.

[6]   Warner Bros., The Matrix, 1999.

[7]   I want to be clear that I do NOT mean to slow down beyond what the situation demands. That would be stupid. Rather, slow down and remain in control of what you’re doing. Do NOT let the situation take control.

[8]   “Feel like relief.” In crisis we seek relief. It can be so powerful we will jump from frying pan to fire, as it were. This is what leaders and project/change managers are expected and needed to inhibit.

[9]   Ideally onto a committee.

[10]   If one or both of these parties don’t do this, maybe it’s not really a crisis. Or they have yet to reach Acceptance.

[11]   I recognize many things that result from crisis action are defensibly good and the crisis merely catalyzed occurrence. On balance, however, it stands to reason there will be more misplaced “crisis” structures/behaviours post-crisis.

Go ahead and share

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Enjoy this content? Please spread the word.