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Conducting COVID-19 "In-Flight" Incident Reviews

Over the past few weeks, the conversation around return-to-work has been growing, fueled in part by rising and historic unemployment, concerns about the economy, the roll-out of government-backed resumption plans, and the witnessing of different regions, countries, states, and localities starting to open up at varying speeds.

While companies may be anxious to resume work, it goes without saying that it needs to be done in a careful manner. Not only are there large-scale, societal health implications for getting this wrong, but from a business perspective, getting this wrong could cause more damage than has already been done. There is a potential for harm to current and future financial performance, as well as to the organization’s brand and reputation, which could then in turn have longer-term implications that companies aren’t even contemplating at the moment (e.g., future recruitment and employee retention).

It’s with that concern that companies have started contemplating business resumption planning and focusing on a formal return to facilities and travel in a safe and productive manner.

At this time, there is tremendous value in briefly pausing to reflect on the organization’s COVID-19 journey to date and conduct an “in-flight” incident review as a means of optimizing the approach going forward.

Traditionally, following a crisis, boards of directors and/or senior management require organizations to undergo what is often referred to as a post-incident review. These reviews focus on root cause analysis and corrective actions required to ensure the organization is better prepared for the next crisis.

However, given the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic and the unknown length of the disruption, companies have increasingly been using a similar methodology to conduct in-flight incident reviews now, in the midst of response. Different techniques can be utilized, ranging from traditional interviews and documentation reviews to more streamlined and targeted red teaming; all efforts are focused on course correcting ahead of what will be a long journey towards recovery as well as informing near- and medium-term business resumption planning.

With that in mind, the following are three key lessons we’ve learned conducting post-incident reviews during previous crises, as well as recently during several in-flight reviews, that organizations should consider as they embark on their own in-flight journeys:

1. Humans Are Often Naturally Leery and Defensive.

A key element of any quality post-incident or in-flight review is the interviewing of company personnel familiar with the crisis and company’s response. This, however, poses a significant challenge: employees are often leery of the “real purpose” behind the review. They may worry that it is some sort of “witch hunt” to determine who is to blame for poor performance during a crisis. This often results in employees becoming defensive and/or deflective when being asked to provide perspective on what could have been improved, rarely attributing any blame to their own actions. This can make it difficult to nail down consensus view around performance.

The Solution

Upfront communication—and continued reiteration—of the real purpose of the review is key. Assure participants that the goal in this is improvement, not punishment, and that improvement can’t be achieved without an open and honest dialogue. In addition, ensure the interviewees include individuals who were impacted by the company’s decisions in addition to those who were responsible for the response.

Getting a cross-business view at multiple levels of the organization is key to building consensus and identifying strengths, weaknesses and recommendations for the future that can be built into business resumption planning.

2. The Focus of the Review Must Extend Beyond Just Response.

A common flaw we observe as companies embark on these types of reviews is that they solely focus on how the organization responded to the crisis, without examining how prepared they were for the crisis in the first place or obtaining any insight into what the organization needs to consider as they look forward.

The Solution

Ensure the review is holistic and focuses not just on the “now,” but also on the “before” and “after.”  The COVID-19 pandemic has identified significant shortfalls in company preparedness for an event of this type, often challenging long-held assumptions that crisis management and business continuity capabilities are built on.

This is the time to think about lack of preparedness as a means of changing things going forward so that the organization is better prepared for the next wave or next major crisis. As the organization looks forward, it is valuable to gain the perspective of those actively managing the crisis as well as those managing the everyday business who are often faced with secondary effects of the crisis.

These discussions should be used to identify potential emerging risks as the crisis continues to unfold and/or slow down. Identifying the risks now, ahead of them materializing, puts the company in a great position to minimize their impact and/or avoid them.

3. External Expectations Are on the Rise.

While the driving force behind a review is often the board or senior management looking to improve internal response posture going forward, external entities are becoming increasingly interested in understanding if organizations are taking continuous improvement seriously.

Unlike some crises, COVID-19 has very clearly shown how an organization’s response can have serious implications for other key stakeholders, including customers and partners, and even wider societal impacts if the services or products they provide are linked to essential infrastructure or goods. Look no further than recent food supply chain issues that are being compounded by how organizations all along the value chain (e.g., manufacturers, trucking companies, grocery stores) are responding to the crisis. While the food supply chain example has quite large societal impacts, we’re also seeing similar calls for increased transparency in other industries.

The Solution

Be proactive in communicating efforts you are undertaking to improve and optimize your path forward.

There is general acknowledgement that this is a crisis unlike anything anyone has seen before; thus there is some natural forgiveness for mistakes made at the beginning of the response, and it’s important to emphasize that you’ve learned from those mistakes. Conducting these reviews, and ultimately embedding lessons learned from them in your business resumption planning, are all part of your commitment to your people, clients, partners, and the broader community that you are “all in” on getting this right going forward.

While it can be tempting to immediately jump into business resumption planning and start thinking through how you’re going to return to some sort of “new normal,” taking a brief pause to conduct an in-flight incident review is quite prudent and can provide great insight that can and should be factored into any formal business resumption planning. This will help the organization ensure it has factored both successes and failures into forward planning. It will provide assurance to interested external parties that you are taking this seriously and focused not just on the short term, but on the long-term success of the organization and protection of its employees, customers, and partners.


Matthew Hinton leads Control Risks’ Crisis and Resilience Consulting business in North America. This article was originally published 11 May 2020 on the Control Risks Blog and was reprinted here with permission.

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