What is Normal?

By Gaia Grant

For the last few years many people have been expressing their desire that life could get back to normal. But what exactly is ‘normal’?! In the past 4000 years only 300 have been free of major wars. Perhaps we will have to come to terms with the fact that normal is what we may be facing right now.

Most people are now pretty much tuned in to the fact that any of us could face a crisis in our lives at any time. And many organisations have already started to consider the need for effective crisis management in the event of an unexpected disaster. But how many individuals and organisations are really prepared for crisis?

A quick internet search on “crisis management” brings up 2 million articles. Within a few months of the SARS outbreak or Bird Flu there were half a million articles written about the diseases. It’s quite clear that it is not the knowledge that we lack, but the ability to act on this knowledge.

Once there is awareness of the need for effective crisis management, the next stage is action. Waiting until disaster actually strikes is usually too late. The more individuals and organisations have planned and prepared for disaster, the better their chances will be of coping with crisis when it comes.

When the bird flue of 2004 hit Asia only months after Sars had dried up, from the media reports in early 2004 it seemed as many people in positions of power had learnt very little from SARS about handling the issues and reputation. Countries started to cover up and deny- again, accusations were made and rather than constructive dialogue many governments dug their heels in.


“We hope this will be a wake-up call for the whole world, to be ready for the big epidemic that one day will come.” WHO China office, Henk Bekedam

Contemporary approaches to crisis management need to deal with the added complication of crossing countries and cultures. As our world grows smaller, problems that once upon a time might have remained relatively isolated can quickly become universal.

When a problem crosses the usual cultural barriers, different standards and priorities come into play. This means that problems can become much more complex. But we are now realising that individual leaders and organisations can no longer operate individually.

The SARS outbreak has tested the validity of these assumptions. It has showed that problems are harder to solve when there are conflicting agendas and cultural differences. WHO made it clear that the epidemic may not have spread as far as it did if there had been more openness and cooperation between nations.

This outbreak also demonstrated how unprepared many countries and organisations were for a crisis of this kind and of this magnitude. Even after it was clear that it would spread quickly, many places were completely ill equipped – particularly in the Asian region, where the impact was the greatest.


Crises force organisations to identify their key values. Many companies in the tourism industry have, for example, been forced to choose between staff or hardware, made to focus on what it is that defines them.

As an executive from a leading organization in the tourism industry in Asia has discovered, “Crisis has forced us to evaluate what is core and non-core in our company. The choices we have had to make have tested what was once an academic mission statement and showed how values underlie every choice we make. Before people would just walk through our door. Now we are working as executives to find what it really was that made us so successful, and in the future will be able to leverage off this.”

©2004 by Gaia Grant


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