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on crisis management

I have, over the years, had to manage a few some lasting a matter of hours, many for a couple of days and one or two that went into a second week. They come along with reasonable regularity and most you have planned for, for example there is a good chance that you will get a power failure at some point and you should have plans in place that you test. Occasionally you get some warning; floods for example, but most of the time a crisis will come out of the blue and you need to react.

Leaving aside the details of how you manage a crisis there is a common thread and that is that you need information in order to make decisions about what to do. The problem that always occurs is that the information you are getting is not static. Let’s take an equipment failure as a starting point. Something stops working so you do the obvious checks and then call for an engineer. They will be with you in two hours you are told and so you work on the basis that it will probably be three hours before they get to you (experience) and then at least another hour before they have diagnosed the fault.

So you are planning on at least four hours before you know what is wrong and then you should have some idea of how long it will take to fix. You make some decisions about what you can do to continue business and communicate an action plan. Half a day is potentially down the toilet and you will be trying to work out the implications of that. You should have some plans in place for this sort of problem and you will have kicked those off, but, as the military will tell you, no plan survives first contact with the enemy. In this case the enemy is life and it will conspire to screw you in all probability.

The fitter arrives five hours after the call and starts work. There is no point in asking how long at this point because they cannot tell you any more than that they need a certain amount of time to run their tests. Leave them to get on with the job and concentrate on the things that you can do something about, but, by now, you have lost today.

As you try to reschedule again and plan communicating the changes news reaches you that one group of people have, instead of doing something that you asked, decided that they had a better idea and have implemented it. It might actually be a better idea, but doing it in isolation has screwed up the overall plan (by now you are probably on Plan C).

Trying not to panic you accept that today is really now finished and look to work out what you will do tomorrow. There are still variables though and the engineer tells you that the part that has failed has been identified, has been ordered and is en-route by courier from Germany and that he will be back in the morning to accept it on delivery and fit it. You know not to ask when things will be running again, but you ask anyway. The response is a shrug. Plan D is worked out that evening along with plans E and F as contingency and you have all the communication ready to roll come the morning.

I won’t go through the story* any further because the moral has been set out: Things change all of the time around you and trying to juggle them all whilst new things keep getting thrown in as ones in the pattern are snatched away is all part of managing. Rarely does anyone tell you that you are doing well and, whilst you always have crisis plans, all they do is give you a rough framework and a few tools. Most of what happens you will be making ups as you go along based on information, predictions and experience of which the first two will be changing, often to the extent of complete U-turns.

All you can do is to keep your head and plough on. You know that you will, at times, look stupid or incompetent, but don’t let it phase you. The Monday Morning Quarterbacks will have a field day with the benefit of knowing the results and will glory in the bits that you didn’t do so well, but they were not there in the hot seat.

One of the problems is that there will always be some damage and anyone who try’s to say that there should n to have been is wrong (I have a lot of other descriptions for them, but I’ll keep this clean). What you want to do is to minimise that damage and as long as you do that you have succeeded.

Yes there needs to be a drains up review afterwards, but that has to be solely about learning; apportionment of blame can play no part because you want the truth not the smokescreen of a fighting defence.

  • The story is a real one. The new part arrived and failed that day. It took four more days to find the root of the problem and another two to implement an effective cure. It cost us dearly in terms both financial and to our reputation and all because a new piece of kit being operated by the company next door was causing spikes in the electricity supply. We did survive though and over the next twelve months we recovered, but one customer had left all of our daily briefings and delighted in trotting them out every time we got around to negotiating another contract with them. That’s life; suck it up and keep smiling.
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