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
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:
- 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.
- Beyond 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?
- Symbolic Self-Completion and Projects
- The theory of symbolic self-completion holds that to define themselves, humans sometimes assert indicators
of achievement that either they do not have, or that do not mean what they seem to mean. This behavior
has consequences for managing project-oriented organizations.
- Wishful Thinking and Perception: I
- How we see the world defines our experience of it, because our perception is our reality. But how we
see the world isn't necessarily how the world is.
- How to Get Out of Firefighting Mode: II
- We know we're in firefighting mode when a new urgent problem disrupts our work on another urgent problem,
and the new problem makes it impossible to use the solution we thought we had for some third problem
we were also working on. Here's Part II of a set of suggestions for getting out of firefighting mode.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming 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.
- And on February 28: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: I
- 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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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- 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.