Putting Numbers on Levels of Importance in Crisis Management

Now that management science has taught us how to quantify so many other things, crisis management is a good candidate for being awarded its own scale of seriousness too. The detail you put into such a scale will depend on how much crises afflict your enterprise. If you are battling a continual stream of problems, your scale may be finer (say, 1 to 10), in order to sort out the life-and-death situations from the nuisances. Otherwise, a high-medium-low system of ranking may be sufficient, as long as there are clear definitions for crises to be categorised correctly. So, how does this work in practice?

The eBay Company is a notable example of an enterprise using what its managers called a ‘crisis Richter scale’. At one stage of its development, the company was constantly under pressure to make its systems work better – or indeed to make them work at all. The complex IT infrastructure meant increased chances of things breaking, to the extent that a day without a problem of some kind was the exception instead of the rule. Without the means to prioritise the different mishaps, it was impossible to manage properly and to set expectations about what would be fixed when.

A scale from 1 to 10 was defined internally. 1 was informally defined as “who cares” and 10 as “the world’s on fire”. A crisis of level 10 was for instance the entire eBay site crashing, which meant that customers were unable to use the service, and eBay’s business stopped. By comparison, an example of a crisis of level 3 was a rarely used feature being unavailable, or an uncomplimentary article about the quality of customer service. While these problems also needed to be fixed, they were not allowed to deflect attention from more serious ones. Now that eBay has achieved leadership status in its market, perhaps this crisis scale has been simplified into a high-medium-low one. That, hopefully, would reflect a reduction in the total number of crises to handle; a good goal for any organisation.