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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.

on “I told you so”


It doesn’t matter who you are or what you do, there will always be someone who thinks that they know better and you can always rely on them to say so. Said to your face is one thing, but if you are in any position of responsibility the likelihood is that they will tell everyone that they can just how badly you got it wrong.

For anyone who is leading making decisions is a problem. Whatever you decide impacts on others and their families; your own people, suppliers and customers can all suffer if you screw up and bring the business down. If you are the one in the hot seat then you try to make sure that all of your decisions are made based on the best information that you have at the time and the consequences of your decision are well thought through.

Over the years I have made hundreds of big decisions for the businesses that I have worked for or owned. The beast majority of them didn’t turn out too badly, there were a few spectacular failures and about the same number of decisions went so well that they kept me employed and well paid. I would love to claim credit, but the reality is that luck played a part part in almost all of the outcomes, good, bad and middling.

It would be easy to control the outcomes if you could control the environment that you are working in, but you can’t. The world is a dynamic place and things around you are changing all of the time. Any advice that you can get on the future is based on the past and it is not uncommon for results to work out to be the opposite of what was confidently predicted. Research is constant and can also show results that swing like a pendulum so if you catch the swing going the right way you are fine, but if you catch it at the end off a swing you look a chump. And you can safely bet there will be those who delight in pointing that out.

You learn from mistakes, but a decision that doesn’t work out as well as it ought is not a mistake and I would always accept constructive criticism from people who has also been in the hot seat. How you react to failure is important and adds to your experience as you face the next big decision and the one after that. The armchair critic and the Monday morning quarterback can, and will, have their say, but you can largely ignore them, simply because they did not have the decision to make. In any case they are working with hindsight and any fool can say a decision was wrong then.

The other thing about the “I told you so” mob is that they rarely can explain what they would have done or why that would have worked. Look at politics; the opposition will always criticise the lot who are in power, but they rarely come up with any credible solution and, should they gain power, are rarely any better with their own decision making.

As a leader you will find the world a lonely place, but that is how it should be. You take on the responsibility and you do your best. If you are good enough you will make decisions that work out well most of the time. Let your team take the credit for delivering those because it is them who will be doing the work. Take the failures on the chin yourself regardless of why the idea failed, and let you critics take a running jump.

a secret ingredient of leadership


Look up the characteristics of leadership  and you will see the usual suspects; charisma, decision making, vision, caring for their followers, character, courage and so on, but there is another key ingredient that rarely gets a mention and that is the subject of this weeks musing.  Read more…