Military lessons for corporate crisis management success

April 29, 2015 by Jonathan Hemus

military-lessons-crisis- management

Crisis management is, hopefully, a rare experience for most organisations. For the armed forces it’s part of their daily lives. Crisis management terms that are bandied around in corporate circles (strategy, scenario planning, war-gaming, command and control) are well rehearsed techniques and practices deployed by the armed forces to manage life and death situations.

So what can businesses learn from military crisis management planning and crisis management training?

We asked former British Army Officer Mark Wenham, most recently Commander of UK Defence Media Operations Centre, for his views and he picked out the following six requirements for effective crisis management training and crisis management exercises:

1) Train hard, fight easy

In order for teams to work well under pressure, they need to develop skills and practice them. That’s why the Armed Forces invest so much time in training for such contingencies.

The same applies to corporate crisis management teams: don’t expect your people to succeed under the most intense pressure if you’ve not taken the time to train them beforehand.

2) Learn to walk before you run

Military training takes time – rookie recruits are not turned into battle-hardened veterans overnight. Their training is incremental, building skills and confidence over a period of months and years, rather than challenging them with a complex battle-field exercise on day one.

Adopt the same approach to corporate crisis management training: give your people training on the role they play in a crisis and brief them on the crisis management plan before dropping them into a pressurised crisis simulation exercise. Ignore this and the risk of failure is high, leading to a team with its confidence damaged.

3) Realistic rehearsal builds resilience to stress

To be effective, rehearsal needs to incorporate resilience to stress to build confidence in a crisis situation. When engaged in tactical exercises, the military will, where possible, replicate battlefield conditions, by the safe use of explosives and ammunition and on occasions utilising real amputees to role-play casualties.

For corporate crisis simulations to be effective, they too must be realistic. Nothing can fully replicate the pressure, intensity and emotion of a real crisis. But the aim of a crisis simulation should be to get as close as possible. Having a crisis management team endure a simulated incident hardwires into them a powerful experience which they can draw upon in the event of a real crisis.

4) Rehearsals should be opportunities to learn, not tests

The military understands that to reduce the likelihood of mistakes in real situations, soldiers must be encouraged to go out of their comfort zone – and make mistakes – during exercises. This approach results in the most powerful learnings.

Corporate crisis management simulations should also be viewed as opportunities to rehearse and learn, rather than a test which you pass or fail. Essential to achieving this is a supportive and constructive corporate culture (which will also have broader benefits in terms of crisis prevention and management).

5) Rehearsals build relationships and teams

The military understands that it cannot operate in a vacuum, especially in a crisis situation. Teamwork and coordination is critical to success. So, when engaged in a major planning exercise, they will involve a range of stakeholders including government departments, NGOs, the UN, EU, NATO and the emergency services, as well as the media.

The same is true for businesses. Whilst rehearsing your own crisis management plan is essential, understanding how your business partners, suppliers, emergency services, customers, regulators and other critical stakeholders would respond is crucial too.

6) Rehearsals only have value if you learn from them

The rigour of a thorough military de-briefing ensures that individuals learn and develop, and learnings are embedded in updated plans, processes and procedures.

The pressures of corporate life mean that businesses sometimes move on too quickly from exercises – or even live crises – without learning and acting upon what was revealed. Time spent reviewing an exercise and making changes as a result is an essential investment in future reputation protection.

Thankfully, corporate crises rarely have the life or death importance of a battlefield. Nevertheless, embracing principles from military crisis management can help businesses to survive when under fire.

Download our full report on crisis management lessons from a military perspective via the button below. 


Insignia Award Icon

Winner of Consultancy of the Year at CIR Business Continuity Awards 2023

Insignia Award Icon

Finalists for Specialist Consultancy of the Year at CIR Business Continuity Awards 2020 & 2023

Insignia Award Icon

Finalists in 2023 Great British Entrepreneur Awards: Service Industries category

Insignia Award Icon

Winner Specialist Business Book of the Year 2021 at The Business Book Awards (Crisis Proof)

Insignia Award Icon

Finalists in the Lloyds Bank British Business Excellence Awards 2021: Purpose Before Profit category

Insignia Award Icon

Finalists in the Business Champion Awards 2021: Champions in a Crisis category

Insignia Award Icon

Finalists for Business Advisor of the Year at the 2021 Growing Business Awards

Insignia Award Icon

Shortlisted for BCI Europe Awards 2023: Continuity and Resilience Consultant category