Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 5, Issue 2;   January 12, 2005: Emergency Problem Solving

Emergency Problem Solving

by

Last updated: August 8, 2018

In emergencies, group problem solving is unusually challenging, especially if lives, careers, or companies depend on finding a solution immediately. Here are some tips for members of teams that are solving problems in emergencies.

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?"

Emergency extrication training

Robins Air Force Base Fire Emergency Services personnel participate in vehicle extrication training. The training is a requirement for all firefighters. U.S. Air Force photo by Angela Woolen.

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. Go to top Top  Next issue: Obstacles to Compromise  Next Issue

52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!

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.

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenibGXMOkXXwgtIiqbner@ChacEinocFujvrhiumdboCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Project Management:

US Space Shuttle LaunchSome Causes of Scope Creep
When we suddenly realize that our project's scope has expanded far beyond its initial boundaries — when we have that how-did-we-ever-get-here feeling — we're experiencing the downside of scope creep. Preventing scope creep starts with understanding how it happens.
A cup of coffeeDubious Dealings
Negotiating contracts with outsourcing suppliers can present ethical dilemmas, even when we try to be as fair as possible. The negotiation itself can present conflicts of interest. What are those conflicts?
Firefighter lighting grass using a drip torchBeyond Our Control
When bad things happen, despite our plans and our best efforts, we sometimes feel responsible. We failed. We could have done more. But is that really true? Aren't some things beyond our control?
Ice on Challenger's launch pad hours before the launchDesign Errors and Groupthink
Design errors cause losses, lost opportunities, accidents, and injuries. Not all design errors are one-offs, because their causes can be fundamental. Here's a first installment of an exploration of some fundamental causes of design errors.
Firefighter lighting grass using a drip torchHow to Get Out of Firefighting Mode: I
When new problems pop up one after the other, we describe our response as "firefighting." We move from fire to fire, putting out flames. How can we end the madness?

See also Project Management and Problem Solving and Creativity for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A pair discussion in a speedstormComing February 27: Brainstorming and Speedstorming: II
Recent research into the effectiveness of brainstorming has raised some questions. Motivated to examine alternatives, I ran into speedstorming. Here's Part II of an exploration of the properties of speedstorming. Available here and by RSS on February 27.
A meeting that's probably a bit too largeAnd on March 6: A Pain Scale for Meetings
Most meetings could be shorter, less frequent, and more productive than they are. Part of the problem is that we don't realize how much we do to get in our own way. If we track the incidents of dysfunctional activity, we can use the data to spot trends and take corrective action. Available here and by RSS on March 6.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenXNUpbUrhPYKBpPAUner@ChackDbTmDIFdqqUoIIZoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople 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.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
101 Tips for Managing ConflictFed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you the target of a bully? Learn how to make peace with conflict.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.