2017 Volume 20 Issue 2

Thriving Through Crisis: A Resiliencing Approach

Thriving Through Crisis: A Resiliencing Approach

Understanding Crisis as an Ever Changing, Emergent, Dynamic Phenomenon

The importance of surviving and thriving through crises is incontrovertible. But few organizations have achieved this ideal. Why? Managers and leaders put the wrong mindsets to work. It is time to rethink and reframe crisis management and adopt a resiliencing approach.

In essence, resiliencing is about a temporal perspective that provides a more nuanced understanding of crisis as an ever changing, emergent, dynamic phenomenon. The author proposes that the path to resiliencing starts with adopting a resiliencing mindset, which emphasizes proactivity in looking for early signs of alarms. The author also suggests establishing and sustaining concrete resiliencing practices and steps not only during a crisis, but also enacting them before and even after a crisis. Finally, the author urges organizational leaders to invest in resources and mechanisms that promote resiliencing. Although resiliencing for crisis is more chaotic and challenging than routine operation and collaboration, it is here to survive and thrive through crisis.

Business Crises

Today’s media headlines are full of news about business crises announcing sudden earnings shortfalls, product failures, management malpractices, and loss of human lives. Toyota, BP, Volkswagen, and Samsung are the latest large corporations to go through the wringer when prominent problems have become worsened and missteps have been clear. For example, spontaneous explosions of Samsung Galaxy Note 7 smartphones in August and September in 2016 triggered Samsung’s drastic move of killing the Galaxy Note 7 entirely in the following month. The damage has been severe.[1] By early October of 2016, Samsung’s South Korea-traded shares fell more than 8 percent, its biggest daily drop since 2008, knocking $17 billion off the company’s market value. Strategy Analytics, a research firm, had estimated earlier that Samsung could lose more than $10 billion because of the Note 7 fiasco.[2]

Beyond Surviving and Thriving

The importance of surviving and thriving through crises is incontrovertible.[3] Yet companies that do it well are extraordinarily rare. Many managers are thinking about crisis the wrong way. Most executives consider crisis management as enacting ex post, reactive activities that are directed at sudden events or surprises that catch organizations unaware. They also believe that crisis management is pretty straight-forward: once a crisis is detected and declared, executives will marshal a crisis management team comprised of experts who may help cope with the critical and challenging events at hand. Better yet, executives can assign the same crisis management team to review and write a report on what happened and then distribute it throughout the organization once the situation is over. Then, chapter closed. These widely held beliefs are, however, misguided.

Normalization of Deviance

First, crisis is never a sudden, one-time event. The seeds of organizational crises may lie dormant within the system for a long time before turmoil arrives in small problems, discrepancies, errors, or failures that are unnoticed, ignored, misunderstood, or discounted to breach the system’s defenses.[4], [5], [6] To make things worse, as small deviations (e.g., problems, discrepancies, errors, or failures) persist over time, organizational members incorrectly learn to accept such deviations as normal and fail to see the need for remaining vigilant—a process called the “social normalization of deviance.”[7] This dangerous process of normalization of deviance further blinds managers and leads them to ignore or discount the risk and warning signs and take a wait-and-see attitude, especially in face of ambiguous threats, which can be catastrophic.[8]

Uncertainty and Anxiety

Second, crisis management is anything but straightforward. Crisis not only creates an acute situation demanding an immediate response, but also generates uncertainty and anxiety and triggers intense emotions such as rage, fear, and despair. To maximize the chances of success, a different mode of management and operation must be activated. This means companies must shift from an orderly and sequential process to a dynamic, iterative one, jettisoning old cultural beliefs and stereotypical notions of “best practices” when the knowns, familiars, and best get in the way.

Intensified Emotional Reactions

In addition, executives need to intently manage the relationships with different stakeholders who are feeling anxious, even painful, about the situation. Thus, leaders must also pay extra attention to the intensified emotional reactions boiling over crisis events. For example, in 2014, Malaysia Airlines, the nation’s heavily indebted, state-owned flag carrier, experienced two fatal incidents. First, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 vanished on March 8, 2014, with 239 people aboard—one of the world’s biggest aviation mysteries that remains unsolved till today. Later that year, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, a scheduled passenger flight, was shot down on July 17, 2014, while flying over eastern Ukraine, killing all 283 passengers and the 15 crew members on board. In both accounts, the airline’s response to the crisis events has attracted widespread criticism from the victims’ families and from media for of its lacking transparency and compassion in handling the crisis.[9], [10] In sharp contrast, Tony Fernandes, AirAsia CEO, has been praised for his quick, compassionate responses to the crash of Flight 8501 carrying 162 people in 2014.[11]

Rethinking and Reframing Business Crises

It is time for executives to rethink and reframe crisis management and adopt a different approach: Think about resilience through explicitly resiliencing. Organizational resilience, which refers to “the capabilities to investigate, to learn, and to act, without knowing in advance what one will be called to act upon,”[12] is not a new concept. But rewiring and relearning different mindsets “actually runs contrary to human nature”[13] and involves painstaking efforts to counter the forces that conspire to make learning through and from crisis difficult. For this, the author suggests a more dynamic perspective of “resiliencing,” a verb instead of a noun, emphasizing a temporal focus that involves relentless feedback loops of anticipating problems, collaborating and improvising promptly to cope with adverse events, and learning from them continually across all levels in organizations over time, and time after time.

This temporal view of resiliencing provides a more nuanced understanding of crisis as an ever changing, emergent, dynamic phenomenon, rather than a discrete, static one. Since time plays a dominant role in any crisis and since all learning takes time, putting the temporal aspect front and center in our discussion is important.[14], [15], [16] Moreover, the resiliencing approach connects and unifies current psychological, or leadership, or system perspectives on crisis by shedding light on how time pressure, organizational structure, and situational complexity conspire to make managing and learning from crisis difficult.

Three Building Blocks of Resiliencing

Fundamentally, a resiliencing approach includes three building blocks that allow organizations to survive and even thrive through crisis: a resiliencing mindset, concrete resiliencing practices and steps, and mechanisms that reinforce resiliencing. Recent research, including the author’s own, shows that organizations can develop and benefit from resiliencing efforts when these essential building blocks fall in place.[17], [18], [19], [20]

 Building Block 1: Heading off trouble with a resiliencing mindset

The path to organizational resilience starts with adopting a resiliencing mindset that helps sparkle the act of attuning to early warning signs. Spotting big, painful, expensive problems or failures is relatively easy, compared to minor or latent ones. But in many organizations any problem that can be hidden is hidden or normalized as long as everything seems working. The goal should be to surface a problem early and continuously, before it has mushroomed into crisis.

Certain organizations, especially so called high-reliability organizations (HROs), have been highly successful in honing their abilities to act reliably and handle adversity in unpredictable situations. To head off the disruptive escalation from issue to problem to crisis, HROs, such as aircraft carriers, nuclear power plants and firefighting crews, monitor their moment-to-moment activities continually, anticipate problems in advance, and respond promptly to adverse events in a flexible rather than rigid way.[21], [22]

It is through a relentless practice of attending to early signs of alarms (even if they may be false) or failures that organizations and their members can maintain and give sense and regain control of a crisis.[23] Electricité de France, which operates 58 nuclear power plants, has been an exemplar in this area: It goes beyond regulatory requirements and religiously tracks each plant for anything even slightly out of the ordinary, immediately investigates what-ever turns up, and feeds the information back to all its other plants.

Although ordinary companies do not face do-or-die circumstances of the same magnitude, they can learn much from HROs about applying the same approach in a very different context effectively so crises can be avoided. For example, the financial services firm Fidelity Investments changed the settings for its statistical process control system to deliberately lower the threshold for identifying potential quality problems, such as a gap between an expected and an actual return on a particular financial instrument in a given time period. By doing so, the company was investigating deviations that did not yet constitute problems but nonetheless might be instructive for learning. This new control process helped Fidelity practice responding to ambiguous threats and fostered continuous improvement in its service operations.

Moreover, and importantly, in face of hyper-dynamic interactions of shocks and interruptions, a resiliencing mindset activates and retains both realism and vision. To be realistic, leaders acknowledge that failures can be overwhelmingly painful; meanwhile, to be visionary they instill the hope of moving from the existing to the desirable. For example, the San José miner rescue operation was an extraordinary effort where Chile’s political and management leaders raised people’s hopes and, at the same time, injected realism.

In this regards, management expert Jim Collins refers to the dual need for hope and pragmatism as the Stockdale Paradox, named after Admiral James Stockdale who led his fellow captives in a North Vietnamese prisoner of war camp. As Stockdale told Collins, “I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.” While Stockdale had remarkable faith and hope, he emphasized: “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

Building Block 2: Critically Configuring concrete resiliencing practices and steps

Traditionally, organizations are recommended to go through five sequential phases of actions during a crisis, starting with signal detection, followed by preparation/prevention, containing/damage control, business recovery, and learning.[24], [25], [26] Treating each phase of actions singularly and doing things right in a linear way or sequentially become more difficult or even unrealistic because the disruptive problems can escalate in an unexpected way. Therefore, concrete resiliencing practices and steps in organization life are not only about what to do when a crisis hits, but about dynamic, fluid actions before, during, and after a crisis.

In particular, the author highlights specific resiliencing actions and steps that are most critical and transcend both crisis and non-crisis episodes—namely, amplifying the weak signals, teaming and practicing the teaming drill, intently reflecting, and continuously learning. Key to these resiliencing actions and steps is that they are anticipative, adaptive, and reflective in nature and should take place throughout organizational life to root out potential threats behind them.

Amplifying the weak signals. During the period of downtime or normal business operations, employees should feel free to ask uncomfortable questions about the potential problem and to explore the significance of aberrant observations without fear of punishment or embarrassment should the threat prove harmless. The burden of amplifying warning signs, however, should not fall solely on the shoulder of employees. Amplifying the weak signals require mechanisms that enable heightened inquiry about potential problems to be legitimate and appropriate and that welcome ambiguous incomplete, but troubling, evidence.

In particular, leaders need to create “voice” opportunities by asking thoughtful questions, explicitly inviting employees’ inputs, and listening actively and intensively. When a leader exhibits a supportive style and open-mindedness for deviant opinions, employees are motivated to speak up and amplify the weak signals. The value of “inquiry” has been greatly emphasized in the Crew Resource Management (CMR) training in the aviation sector. It is strongly advised that aircraft captains, or pilots-in-command, actively invite other crew members to question, scrutinize, and investigate all that is happening.

Teaming, teaming, and teaming. Amy Edmondson, an influential management scholar, defines “teaming” as teamwork on the fly.[27] In crisis situations, organizations have to bring together not only their own far-flung employees from various functions and divisions but also external experts and stakeholders. When a crisis strikes, throwing assorted people together on a team and asking them to find a way to work effectively together is, however, unrealistic. Instead, regularly training and practicing the teaming skill under pressure or in simulated crisis situations is one of the strongest methods to support coordinated actions during critical, consequence-laden events.[28] By going through these “stress rehearsals,” participants learn to recognize the specialized expertise available, respect the inputs of individuals, and efficiently access and apply that knowledge in a coordinated way.

Participants also develop capabilities to quickly build the relationships that undergird team factors such as coordination, adaptation, and shared understanding, which is key to team and organizational effectiveness in dynamic situations. In this way, teaming on the fly becomes a learned habit of pursuing excellence in performance, including in the crisis-laden contexts that require intensive collaboration. Indeed, commercial aviation flight crews, field-based news crews, and emergency medical teams are some shining examples who have been successfully trained to head off crisis.

Reflecting intently. Finding time to pause and reflect on recent crisis experiences, success stories, false alarms, training, and almost everything else included is another challenge, but it is one of the most critical yet under-emphasized activity for resiliencing. Reflection activities should go beyond so called first-order learning (i.e., quick fixes for obvious problems) and focus on the second- and third-order reasoning and learning, which means a deep understanding of the root causes after a misstep and involves relentless, detailed discussion and analysis and critical adjustments in a timely manner.

A point in focus, many North American nuclear power plant crews periodically bring the crew together in the room during a critical event and quickly poll each member on his or her current understanding of the event, allowing each member equal opportunity to update the others. Many hospitals also developed a reflection session after their simulation training to practice and reinforce regular debriefings in everyday work. Moreover, an effective team reflection session not only enables crisis mindfulness and preparation, but also boosts the team skills discussed above—both are essential for organizations to survive and thrive in and after crisis. Captain “Sully” Sullenberger III, hailed as an aviation hero after he guided a US Airways jetliner carrying 155 passengers and crew to safety, added to this point: “The meeting (the pre-flight briefing session) took only about three minutes. But it took this collection of individuals and quickly formed a crew, a working team. We were trying to front-load the problem and create a team very quickly. And that’s what this initial meeting did.”[29]

Continuous learning. Finally, companies must view alarming signs as opportunities to learn and improve, even if the reported alarm turns out to be wrong or benign. Some managers will argue that “fighting fires all day” prevents them from concentrating on “more important matters,” such as meeting stakeholders’ expectations or developing strategies for the future. However, research reveals that organizations can learn a great deal, even from those false alarms.

This principle is also one of the core elements of the quality control method or an “Andon” system pioneered by Toyota.[30] It empowers workers to stop production when doubt occurs, or a defect or error is found. The work is stopped until a solution has been found; moreover, alerts may be logged to a database so that they can be studied as part of a continuous-improvement program. The benefits of exploring early warning signs far outweigh the costs. When Toyota failed to apply the principles of “Andon,” also known as “the Toyota Way” and built around the concept of detecting, reporting and responding to problems quickly, devastating consequence followed: consider the recall crisis in 2010 that cost Toyota hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars and public trust among other negative outcomes.[31]

Putting pieces together, configuring how to best align these concrete resiliencing activities and steps before, during, and after a crisis should be a continuous process. One notable initiative is that at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Edward Rogers, Goddard’s Chief Knowledge Officer, instituted a “pause and learn” process in which teams share concerns and doubts and discuss at each project milestone what they have learned.[32] By critically examining projects while they are still under way, NASA teams aim to take precaution and to identify, report, and discuss alarming events and latent errors. Other NASA centers, including the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which manages NASA’s Mars program, also began similar experiments. Compare to the Andon system previously mentioned, which is designed as a just-in-time but reactive system to detect errors, NASA’s “pause and learn” process builds in a proactive, ex ante mechanism to seek for feedback and alarming signals just in time.[33]

Building Block 3: Creating and Reinforcing mechanisms that support resiliencing

The quality of resiliencing practices and steps largely depends upon the extent to which leaders in organizations can create mechanisms that promote a resiliencing mindset and enable resiliencing practices. First, we need leaders who truly believe in a resiliencing approach and actively promote it. These leaders emphasize purpose, scope out reliability goals and challenges, manage team structures and boundaries, and provide resiliencing incentives. People, including organizational leaders, are hardwired to misinterpret, downplay, or ignore the warning signs embedded in organizational systems.

First. Leaders should understand and emphasize that the purpose of resiliencing is to develop a rigorous discipline of learning and build a learning culture when the unexpected hits the organization. Given that crisis management often involves various boundary-spanning activities such as scouting for information, contracting and cooperation in the heat of actions to “put off the fire,” leaders need to be engaged in boundary-spanning activities. As such, they must gain broader knowledge from a bigger network of potential collaborators, and a better understanding of their company and the different cultures at work. Moreover, leaders need to reward rather than “shoot” messengers who come forward with bad news and critical questions.

Second. If employees are to help spot existing and pending failures and to learn from them, their leaders must make it safe to practice resiliencing. In psychologically safe environments, people are willing to offer up ideas, questions, concerns—even if they are not too sure—and when they do, they learn and so does their organization. In addition, organizational members gain insight into individuals and professional groups whose work is interdependent with their own. They break down barriers, build trust, and gain contacts in other departments.

Much research evidence from hospital units and R&D departments convincingly show that a climate of psychological safety can enable safety, learning, and resiliencing.[34], [35] However, some managers might be concerned that fostering psychological safety can make it difficult to hold people accountable. This is a legitimate concern—if employees become too close to one another and the managerial hand is relatively weak, performance standards can slip. But psychological safety is not about being nice or about lowering performance standards. Rather, healthy organizations foster both by setting high performance aspirations while acknowledging areas of uncertainty that require continued learning or exploration.

Third. Finally, to signal their commitment to resiliencing, leaders should institutionalize disciplined reflections, reporting, learning and exploration, and make resiliencing part of effective memory and organizational culture.[36] Organizations should be able to store lessons learned and then access those lessons at an appropriate time. All too often, a problem arises and is solved locally, but the results are not recorded or shared systematically. When the same problem arises later, or with another shift, or at another work group, they have to solve the same problem all over again, and it may also mean that the underlying issues and problems remain unaddressed. It is up to management to assure that there are knowledge management systems for storing and retrieving lessons learned. That is why a leading medical center, the Cleveland Clinic, developed its own state-of-the-art information technology systems that enable dispersed individuals participating in a particular patient’s care to work together virtually.

The sharing practice has a second side. On one hand, organization systems benefit from searchable computer databases, user-friendly interfaces, listservs, blogs, moderated discussions, and other ways to encourage remote knowledge and information exchanges. On the other, the exchange of rich, complex, unfamiliar, nuanced-information requires a rich medium of communication such as face-to-face discussion. That is why the most successful knowledge management systems use bulletins and data repositories to create awareness and interest, but expect those who need extensive information and applicable knowledge to directly contact specific individuals for advice and help. For example, Groupe Danone, the global food company, uses knowledge “marketplaces”—lively events that occur during company conferences—to encourage frontline managers to share best practices and to innovate by suggesting new processes and products.


Resiliencing for crisis is more chaotic and challenging than routine operation and collaboration. The goal of this article is to promote dialogue, not critique, integrating a temporal perspective on crisis that may boost the chance of organizations surviving and thriving in the time of an unexpected event. A temporal approach to resiliencing highlights three building blocks that work in concert to allow exceptional organizations for achieving desirable outcomes:

  • First, organizations continuously adopt a resiliencing mindset, thoughtfully go beyond detecting and analyzing early warning signs, and relentlessly learn from ambiguous threats and crisis.
  • Second, fostering concrete practices and steps through which accountability and exploration flourish and an atmosphere in which trust and courage thrive and pays off in most settings, particularly in the most consequence-laden situations.
  • Finally, leaders must insist that their organizations invest in the slack time and resources that promote reflection, learning, and resiliencing.

Together, a resiliencing approach echoes the wisdom of Aristotle, who once said, “Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”


[1] Chen, B. X. & Sang-Hun, C. (2016). Why samsung sbandoned its Galaxy Note 7 flagship phone. The New York Times.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Bell, M. A., (2002). The five principles of organizational resilience. Gartner Research.

[4] Lei, Z., Naveh, E., & Novikov, Z. (2016). Errors in Organizations An Integrative Review via Level of Analysis, Temporal Dynamism, and Priority Lenses. Journal of Management, 42, 1315-1343.

[5] Reason, J. (1990). Human Error. New York: Cambridge University Press.

[6] Weick, K. E. & Sutcliffe, K. M. (2007). Managing the Unexpected: Resilient Performance in an Age of Uncertainty. San Francisco, California: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

[7] Vaughn, D. (1996). The Challenger Launch Decision. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago.

[8] Roberto, M. A., Bohmer, R. M. & Edmondson, A. C. (2006). Facing Ambiguous Threats. Harvard Business Review, 84, 11.

[9] Fuller, T. (2014). Confusion Over Plane’s Route Frustrates Families and Search. The New York Times.

[10] BBC. 2014. MH17 Malaysia plane crash in Ukraine: What we know. Available from: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-28357880

[11] McGregor, J. (2014). AirAsia CEO Tony Fernandes places himself at center of the Flight 8501 crisis. The Washington Post. 

[12] Wildavsky, A. (1991). Searching for Safety. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction, p.70.

[13] Tinsley, C. H., Dillon, R. L., & Madsen, P. M. (2011). How to avoid catastrophe. Harvard Business Review, 89(4), 90-97.

[14] Ancona, D. G., Goodman, P. S., Lawrence, B. S., & Tushman, M. L. (2001). Time: A new research lens. Academy of Management Review, 26(4), 645-663.

[15] Lei, Z. (forthcoming). Fast, Slow, and Pause: Understanding Error Reporting via a Temporal Lens. In Hagen, J.(Eds), How could this happen? Managing Errors in Organisations, Palgrave/MacMillan.

[16] Lei, Z., Waller, M. J., Hagen, J., & Kaplan, S. (2016). Team adaptiveness in dynamic contexts: Contextualizing the roles of interaction patterns and in-process planning. Group & Organization Management, 41(4), 491-525.

[17] Lei, Naveh, & Novikov, 2016.

[18] Lei, forthcoming.

[19] Lei, Waller, Hagen, & Kaplan, 2016.

[20] Lei, Z. (2015) Repositioning Crisis Management: The Role of Resilience. Academy of Management Proceedings.

[21] Weick & Sutcliffe, 2007.

[22] Weick, K. E., Sutcliffe, K. M., & Obstfeld, D. (1999). Organizing for High Reliability: Processes of Collective Mindfulness. In R. I. Sutton & B. Staw (Eds.), Research in Organizational Behavior Vol. 21: 81-123. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press, Inc.

[23] Weick, K. E. (1993). The collapse of sensemaking in organizations: The Mann Gulch disaster. Administrative science quarterly, 628-652.

[24] James, E. H. & Wooten, L. P. (2010). Leading under pressure: From Surviving to Thriving Before, During, and After a Crisis. New York: Routledge.

[25] Pearson, C. M., & Clair, J. A. (1998). Reframing crisis management. Academy of Management Review, 23: 59–76.

[26] Waller, M., Lei, Z., & Pratten, R. (2014). Focusing on Teams in Crisis Management Education: An Integration and Simulation-Based Approach. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 13, 2, 208–221.

[27] Edmondson, A. (2012). Teamwork on the fly. Harvard Business Review, 90, 4. 72-80.

[28] Waller, Lei, & Pratten, 2014.

[29] Harrison, C. (2010). Crisis leadership: A pilot’s highest duty. Interview with C. Sullenberger. Retrieved from http://www.expressionsofexcellence.com/ARTICLES/CrisisLeadershipSullyInterview.html

[30] Spear, S., & Bowen, H. K. (1999). Decoding the DNA of the Toyota production system. Harvard business review, 77, 96-108.

[31] Bunkley, N. (2011). Recall study finds flaws at Toyota. The New York Times, B1.

[32] Tinsley, Dillon, & Madsen, 2011.

[33] Schmutz, J. B., Z. Lei, W. Eppich, & T. Manser (2017). Reflection in the heat of the moment: temporal approach to team reflexivity in healthcare emergency teams. Presented at the Interdisciplinary Group Research (INGroup) Conference.

[34] Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological safety and learning behavior in work teams. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44(2): 350-383.

[35] Edmondson, A. C. & Lei, Z. (2014). Psychological safety: The history, renaissance, and future of an interpersonal construct. Annual Review of Organization Psychology & Organizational Behavior, 1(1): 23-43.

[36] Everly, G. S. (2011). Building a resilient organizational culture. Harvard Business Review, 10(2), 109-138.

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Author of the article
Zhike Lei, PhD
Zhike Lei, PhD, is an associate professor of Applied Behavior Science at the Graziadio School of Business and Management at Pepperdine University. Previously, Dr. Lei was a faculty member at Georgetown University, European School of Management Technology (Germany), and George Mason University. She has taught undergraduates, MBA graduates, PhD graduates and executives across the globe. As a scholar, Dr. Lei has published her research in numerous leading management journals, including Journal of Applied Psychology, Journal of Management, the Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, the Academy of Management Learning and Education, and Harvard Business Manager, among others. She has won a number of research grants and awards, including those from the European Commission’s Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Juran Center for Leadership in Quality at University of Minnesota, and Group & Organization Management (Sage Journal). Dr. Lei is a frequent panelist and speaker for major academic conferences in the management field.
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