Managing Complexity: Lessons from the Australian Crisis Simulation Summit

Last week, I had the privilege of taking part in the Australian Crisis Simulation Summit sponsored by the Australian National University. Over three days, delegates from around the country worked together to solve three national security crises under the guidance of some of the foremost experts in the field, including former Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, Professor Rory Medcalf and Professor John Blaxland.

Over the course of the crises, the cohort of delegates learned hundreds of lessons, and the difference between the first hour of the first crisis and the last hour of the last crisis was massive. Below I reflect on some of the things I learned about managing crisis situations.

The biggest hurdle to overcome was the complexity of the situation, and the chaos that ensued as a result. Each crisis was nominally related to one area, but involved a whole of government response and each agency and department was required to deal with a range of issues. Successfully dealing with each of the crises required several levels of effective management to both develop solutions and communicate them to all agencies. It was this structure that, by the end of the week, was able to make the whole team of 70 delegates successful in tackling the problem at hand.

Two problems were presented that the correct structures were able to solve: the informational incompleteness and jurisdictional shackles.

Each team, as in real life, had different pieces of information. Whether this was being fed in through intelligence sources or briefing documents, each was a crucial part of the overall puzzle. In the early simulations, the teams each tried to solve the problem using the information they had, which was of course incomplete. Techniques we have learned previously - making educated guesses, trial and error - were put to use. These are great tools in academic settings where to complexity is low. The problem was that by each team doing this, they were moving in different directions, and therefore making the problem even more difficult to solve.

By the final simulation of the week, delegates were putting together structures to overcome this. Meetings were convened between ministers and secretaries, information was shared and debated, and decisions to move forward - together - were made.

This structure also helped to cure the jurisdictional problems that were presented as well. No team had the ability to solve the problem by themselves. Just as no government agency has the capacity to do so. Tackling something like the COVID-19 crisis required massive amounts of coordination between decision makers in Cabinet to on the ground nurses administering tests, border officials and police officers. These structures had to be constructed on the fly, as the situation was changing. Decisions also needed to be communicated to the public, often through an adversarial media.

In the simulations, it was these structures both formal and informal which assisted the teams in coordinating responses. Formal structures existed within teams - there was a minister or a secretary to answer to, and who would make decisions. There were also formal meetings taking place in which the ministers from across the government would share information and make decisions. Informal structures also began to emerge. A member of one of the teams would begin collecting and disseminating intelligence across the government. Another team might disseminate policy decisions to everybody, so that everyone was informed.

By the end of the week, all participants had learned a massive amount about how a crisis can be managed. The difference between the first crisis and the last crisis huge. The first was marked by chaos and disorder, the last by constructive work among and between teams to form a common solution. There were still mistakes made and miscommunications still occurred, but the solution being developed was of a much higher fidelity.

It was an invaluable experience, and one that will need a lot of reflecting on to fully process the lessons learned.