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:
- Toxic Projects
- A toxic project is one that harms its organization, its people or its customers. We often think of toxic
projects as projects that fail, but even a "successful" project can hurt people or damage
the organization — sometimes irreparably.
- Who Would You Take With You to Mars?
- What makes a great team? What traits do you value in teammates? Project teams can learn a lot from the
latest thinking about designing teams for extended space exploration.
- Remote Facilitation in Synchronous Contexts: III
- Facilitators of synchronous distributed meetings (meetings that occur in real time, via telephone or
video) can make life much easier for everyone by taking steps before the meeting starts. Here's Part
III of a little catalog of suggestions for remote facilitators.
- Long-Loop Conversations: Asking Questions
- In virtual or global teams, where remote collaboration is the rule, waiting for the answer to a simple
question can take a day or more. And when the response finally arrives, it's often just another question.
Here are some suggestions for framing questions that are clear enough to get answers quickly.
- Managing Non-Content Risks: II
- When we manage risk, we usually focus on those risks most closely associated with the tasks at hand
— content risks. But there are other risks, to which we pay less attention. Many of these are
outside our awareness. Here's Part II of an exploration of these non-content risks, emphasizing those
that relate to organizational politics.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming January 22: Disjoint Awareness: Bias
- Some cognitive biases can cause people in collaborations to have inaccurate understandings of what each other is doing. Confirmation bias and self-serving bias are two examples of cognitive biases that can contribute to disjoint awareness in some situations. Available here and by RSS on January 22.
- And on January 29: Higher-Velocity Problem Definition
- Typical approaches to shortening time-to-market for new products usually involve accelerating problem solving. Accelerating problem definition can also help. Available here and by RSS on January 29.
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Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.