Everyone was silent as Robin came to the end of her presentation. She sat. It was now clear that they were in much more trouble than anyone had guessed. Warner was dumbfounded. Not really asking, he asked, "What on earth were they thinking?"
Robin knew that an answer was neither necessary nor possible, but she replied anyway. "Not sure," she said. "Probably they were hoping more than thinking." That seemed to help a little — there were faint smiles from several of the others.
Robin went on, "But even if we knew what they were thinking then, it wouldn't help us fix this now." That seemed to help even more.
Robin has just used two of the most important tactics available for emergencies: she's using her wits (and her wit), and she's keeping the focus on the issues. Here are more tactics for emergency problem solving.
- Keep blame at bay
- Blame and problem solving do not mix. If you survive the emergency, there will be time for accountability. If you don't survive, finding fault probably won't matter much. For a discussion of the difference between blame and accountability, see "Is It Blame or Is It Accountability?," Point Lookout for December 21, 2005.
- Don't play "I told you so"
- Working effectively
with others in emergencies
requires special care
- I-told-you-so is a kind of reverse blaming — it's designed to prove the faultlessness of the person making the claim. It isn't problem solving, and it pushes people's buttons.
- Evaluate solutions on their merits
- In normal times, the credibility of the originator or originators of a proposal influences how we evaluate that proposal. In emergencies, the workability of a proposal is far more important than the status of its originator.
- Act decisively and immediately
- In emergencies, the tumble of events takes on a character so distinctive that I call it the "emergency snowball." Because we lack the resource margins that usually permit us to leave problems unresolved, we must act decisively. Delaying action entails risk.
- Accept your place in the hierarchy
- During the emergency, improving or defending your status within the team interferes with its ability to function as a unit with a single shared goal. Accept your place for now, however unjust you feel it might be. The emergency itself might provide the justice you seek.
- Honor your interdependence
- If you accept a responsibility or make a commitment to the team, honor the team's expectations. Unless you make every effort to report a deviation beforehand, doing something different from what you promised can seriously complicate the emergency.
- Hear people out
- In a true emergency, you'll almost certainly have occasion to listen to fractured, unclear, or disjointed descriptions of new problems or other bad news. Listen patiently. Save your questions for the end of the report.
Most important, adopt a positive perspective. When comparing alternatives, frame discussions in terms of the relative advantages of the options, rather than their relative disadvantages. Belief in success is the foundation of success. Top Next Issue
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In emergencies, we're less able than usual to resist the urge to make every effort "count" towards the ultimate deliverable. For a discussion of the downside of this approach, see "Trying to Do It Right the First Time Isn't Always Best," Point Lookout for March 14, 2007.
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More articles on Project Management:
- Bois Sec!
- When your current approach isn't working, you can scrap whatever you're doing and start again —
if you have enough time and money. There's a less radical solution, and if it works, it's usually both
cheaper and faster.
- Shining Some Light on "Going Dark"
- If you're a project manager, and a team member "goes dark" — disappears or refuses to
report how things are going — project risks escalate dramatically. Getting current status becomes
a top priority problem. What can you do?
- Backtracking in Incremental Problem Solving
- Incremental problem solving is fashionable these days. Whether called evolutionary, incremental, or
iterative, the approach entails unique risks. Managing those risks sometimes requires counterintuitive action.
- Missing the Obvious: II
- With hindsight, we sometimes recognize that we could have predicted the very thing that just now surprised
us. Somehow, we missed the obvious. Why does this happen?
- Planning Disappointments
- When we plan projects, we make estimates of total costs and expected delivery dates. Often these estimates
are so wrong — in the wrong direction — that we might as well be planning disappointments.
Why is this?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming July 8: Multi-Expert Consensus
- Some working groups consist of experts from many fields. When they must reach a decision by consensus, members have several options. Defining those options in advance can help the group reach a decision with all its relationships intact. Available here and by RSS on July 8.
- And on July 15: Disjoint Concept Vocabularies
- In disputes or in problem solving sessions, when we can't seem to come to agreement, we often attribute the difficulty to miscommunication, histories of disagreements, hidden agendas, or "personality clashes." Sometimes the cause is much simpler. Sometimes the concept vocabularies of the parties don't overlap. Available here and by RSS on July 15.
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