I once worked for a crisis-driven company. Until a problem had elevated itself to the level of a crisis, it would not be dealt with properly (resource allocations, management attention etc.) – there just was not time for it. In my opinion this approach is rather foolish, but many companies seem to operate this way.
This is how we would typically handle (or mishandle) a crisis:
- Management panics and declares an emergency: all hands on deck.
- A crisis team is convened and charged with forming an action plan, for everyone else to carry out.
- An action plan is produced, requiring multiple departments to contribute time and resources to carry out their slice of the action plan.
- Everyone drops everything and gets busy carrying out their parts of the action plan, reconvening at regular intervals to keep the adrenaline pumping, and to show that work is being done.
- A solution is delivered. Response: "Almost there but not quite…" – another push needed. After a few more volleys, the crisis has been successfully averted.
With hindsight, many of these crises could have been handled with much less ado, if only management had kept their cool and not hit the panic button.
Although "necessity is the mother of invention", with all that adrenaline pumping, the "fight or flight" reflex kicks in, and people are encouraged to attack the problem. Note the emphasis above on action – management want to see that something is being done. Now. In all of these situations we came up with workable solutions, but in many cases cheaper, less disruptive and better quality solutions came to light soon afterwards.
What have I learned from all this:
- An action plan is a good political device to show that something is being done, while covering up the fact that a good solution has not yet been found. The authors of the plan may not even be conscious of this – they may be convinced that it leads to a solution, but they are often mistaken, because it is a solution for the wrong problem.
- Don't attempt to force a solution to a problem. Attacking complex problems under stress is very expensive and produces mediocre solutions at best.
- If you can keep your cool and resist the urge to act until you have reached a fundamental understanding of the problem and a clear vision of what the solution looks like, you will invariably find that the problem is rather different from what you originally thought and considerably easier to solve.
In a recent interview for Fortune Magazine, Carlos Ghosn, CEO of both Renault (France) and Nissan (Japan) said,
"Stress builds up when you know that there is a problem but you do not clearly see it, and you do not have a solution."
I have found that the following steps help me reach this fundamental understanding and clarity of vision:
- Never accept a problem at face value.
- Always go directly to the person who raised the issue (the "stakeholder") and get confirmation that your understanding of it is accurate. See the situation from this person's viewpoint and keep trying to describe what you see in different ways until they agree that you have phrased it accurately.
- Once you've understood the current situation, you must ensure that you fully understand why it is a problem. "This situation is problematic because …"
- Then, imagine that you are a magician. Wave your magic wand and make the problem disappear. What does the situation look like now? Keep waving your magic wand until the stakeholder embraces the scenario you describe.
- You have now described both the problem and the acceptable solution. You know where you stand, and where you need to end up. Now you are ready to think calmly about how to connect the dots and map out your route to a solution.