Living in Barcelona, I have found myself caught up in the kind of geo-political crisis I normally read about as they happen in far away places. Even though I teach second year MBA students about dealing with geo-political uncertainty and even published a book on the topic, it is sobering to live through such a process first-hand. History is, in fact, rife with similar processes which follow certain patterns and I have identified a few features of the recent events that have occurred with enough frequency in the past to merit comment.
Taken by Surprise
One aspect of the current situation in Catalonia is that it came as a surprise to many of the business people and expatriates I know here in Barcelona. This is similar to other recent political events such as Brexit or the election of Donald Trump. What is striking about this is that the political parties that favor independence merely did what they have been promising to do since the elections of September 2015. The recent referendum, in fact, was the centerpiece of the current Catalan government’s program. It therefore should have been no surprise that the vote went ahead, even after the Spanish government and European Union declared it illegal.
Despite the clarity and conviction of the pro-independence movement and the equally clear and rigorous statements from the government in Spain, many of us were still surprised that things eventually came to the current situation. My understanding is that most people, like myself, felt that we would never come to this and that the parties involved would figure out a way out of the crisis long before it came to a head.
In hindsight, of course, it seems clear that sooner or later the yearning for independence of about 40% of the region’s population would eventually boil over in one way or another.
Another aspect of these types of processes is that there are key moments upon which history seems to pivot. Over the last month or so there have been a series of events that are currently too sensitive to even try to list. A few weeks ago I wrote different posts about such pivotal moments in the history of India and Ireland and we can only hope that Catalonia will avoid such horror.
In any case, whatever happens in Catalonia both in the short and the long term, October 2017 will become an irrevocable part of the story.
Only (the worst) Part of the Picture
The third aspect of the current situation is how such events project an image about what is going on to the outside world which is very different than what you see and feel when you are actually living in the city or region affected. Friends and family call and write to express concern as they are exposed to images in the news media and social networks which paint an alarming picture about what is going on.
The impression these images convey to the rest of the world has had serious repercussions for business in Barcelona with a number of companies moving their official headquarters and others postponing important investment decisions. At a more personal level, tourists appear to also be re-thinking Barcelona’s appeal as a destination although the terrorists attacks in August also have had an impact.
In reality, most of Barcelona has actually been quietly going about its business during the entire month. There have, of course, been protests and demonstrations but typically life in the city returns to normal the next day.
The last aspect of these types of situations is that events appear to take on a life of their own as the different players react to one another in a steady escalation. It is as if both sides of the conflict are determined to play out their respective roles no matter how much damage it does to the fabric of civil society and the regional economy. Again, this process seems to be happening in the case of Catalonia.
A final aspect of these types of situations is that people on both sides of the issue increasingly see things in black and white, moral terms. In such an environment, it becomes increasingly difficult for a person, company, or even an institution to stay out of the debate and show respect for the different viewpoints that people feel so strongly about.
What to do ?
For businesses caught up in situations like the one in Catalonia, having contingency plans already in place is essential since changes can happen too quickly for businesses to react. Developing contingency plans not only makes such plans available if needed but also helps the management team talk through the issues at play while there is still time to do so. At times like this the goal for many organizations is to simply get through the crisis while keeping their people safe and minimize disruptions to their operations.