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

Emergency Problem Solving

by

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

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.

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!

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Prof. Tom PettigrewComing February 21: The Ultimate Attribution Error at Work
When we attribute the behavior of members of groups to some cause, either personal or situational, we tend to make systematic errors. Those errors can be expensive and avoidable. Available here and by RSS on February 21.
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Briefly, when people exhibit narcissistic behavior they're engaging in activity that systematically places their own interests and welfare ahead of the interests and welfare of anyone or anything else. It's behavior that threatens the welfare of the organization and everyone employed there. Available here and by RSS on February 28.

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