People have this misconception that crisis management is about complicated tools and expensive training – as if the only way to solve complex systemic problems is with another complex system.

Aaaaaaaand it drives me crazy. See, that’s kind of like trying to treat a burn with boiling water: it never works, it hurts like hell, and just makes the problem bigger and angrier.

Real crises are always always ALWAYS solved with the simplest and most common sense strategies. They don’t cost anything, because they aren’t about what you have. They’re about what you do. Real crises are solved by simply changing how you ask questions and evaluate information.

That’s why I love studying Quality so much. I’ve never yet seen a crisis that couldn’t be explained – and solved – using Quality guru W. Edward’s Deming’s 14 Points. In those points, Deming explained a simple truth:  that corruption and inefficiency in any organization are signs of specific systemic and cultural problems. And that it’s impossible to eliminate those diseases from an organization unless you also get everyone involved to change the culture that bred them in the first place. 

They seem really obvious when you first read them. I mean, SURE it’s a good idea to have consistency of purpose. On-the-job training is OBVIOUSLY a good idea. And, seriously, who DOESN’T think it’s a good idea to drive out fear?  Deming’s points are pretty obvious. They’re pretty common sense.

And over and over again, business and organizations burn to the ground because extremely smart and accomplished people forget to do obvious and common sense things. 

Every time I see an organization in trouble, I can always explain the problem using the 14 Points. And every time I see a company grow or rise from the ashes of a crisis, I can explain their success using the same 14 Points. Every crisis I’ve seen in the last decade, every problem, every industry, every size shape color and culture – the secret to understanding and solving every last one of them is in there.

Pope Francis, formerly  Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio
(also, crisis management ninja)
image courtesy of

That’s why I’m currently obsessed with this guy >>

In case you’ve been living under a rock for the last six months, this is the new leader of the Catholic Church – Pope Francis. Now, I’m not Catholic, and my obsession has nothing to do with Catholic doctrine.  I know faith can be polarizing, so I want everyone reading this to put doctrinal and religious debates aside for a minute and look at the Catholic Church from a purely organizational perspective. And now consider this: Pope Francis has just inherited the unenviable job of fighting corruption and inefficiency in one of the largest  organizations in the world. 

As an organization, the church is truly unique in it’s scale and scope. There isn’t a single other organization in the world whose leader is as geographically and bureaucratically removed from its members as the Pope is from the 1.2 billion members of the Catholic church. That’s why Vatican leadership and the Catholic Church in general have been rocked by scandal after scandal after scandal – from repeated priest abuse scandals and cover ups to the VatiLeaks scandal to the current mafia-flavored corruption investigation of Vatican bank management.

Yet from a management standpoint, the Catholic church’s issues are no different from any other organization in crisis. These are simply the kinds of management problems that Deming explained with his 14 Points, playing out on an international scale. They plague any organization, but those with a lot of resources and a lot of layers in the hierarchy are especially susceptible to them.

And that’s why managers, business owners, bureaucrats, and elected officials everywhere should be watching His Holiness very, very closely. 

You see, the current Pope is a crisis management veteran with a proven track record of fighting corruption and organizational crises that no one thought could be fixed – and winning.

And the way he did it didn’t cost a dime.

There is no reason you can’t do it, too. 

Listen up, friends – this is a case study you don’t want to miss:

The Old Situation

Back in 1992, the current Pope was called Jorge Mario Bergoglio – the new Archbishop of Buenos Aires. The city ranks pretty freaking high on the list of “Most Corrupt Places on Earth.” 61% of citizens live in slums called  villas miseria. If you have access to a computer and are reading this, it’s likely that you’ve never experienced anything like these Villas. You can see pictures of them here. They’re decades-old shanty towns, ruled by gangs and drug dealers. Many of their citizens are hooked on paco, a cheap drug paste made from the leftovers of cocaine production – and they steal and kill to pay for their next hit.  Police don’t go into villas. If they do, it’s because they’re selling guns or drugs or collecting pay-offs from the gangs.

The Archbishop inherited an Argentine church is crisis. They were still recovering from the Dirty War of  the 1970s – when political conflict in Argentina split the Catholic church into conservative and liberal social factions, and many priests in the Buenos Aires villas were assassinated.  People wanted to get out of Buenos Aires, and joining the clergy seemed like a pretty good way to do that. After a few years of study in a safe parish, priests usually applied for foreign assignments – which usually meant a one-way ticket out of poverty and out of Buenos Aires. The clergy that stayed usually avoided the dangerous villas completely – it was just too dangerous, too hard to win trust, too hard to fight drugs and poverty without become a target for the gangs. And some of the priests had survived past political chaos by buying into the corrupt tactics the police used.

No one wanted to tackle the problems of the Villas. They’d tried before, and were certain that it was impossible to make any progress there.

The Current Situation

The new Archbishop disagreed. He decided to attack poverty and drug use in the largest and worst Villa in Argentina – Villa 21, housing 50,000 people. In the following 15 years, he built:

  • A headquarters in the heart of the Villa;
  • A recovery center for drug addicts;
  • Two farms where recovering addicts work and live;
  • 16 churches around the neighborhood
  • A high school;
  • A trade school, offering courses in auto repair, electronics, laundry services, computers and other practical job skills;
  • A home for the elderly;
  • A soup kitchen (in addition to the fact that anyone hanging around the parish at lunch time will get invited to eat lunch with the priests);
  • A community radio station, which broadcasts 24/7 and where professors from the local university teach young people the media business;
  • A community newspaper;
  • Drug prevention programs, some targeted at paco;
  • A daily center for kids living in the streets where they can get cleaned up and get a hot meal and help straightening their lives out if they want it. (source here)

He implemented some pretty amazing programs.
But how he did it is the real lesson.

He didn’t just announce new programs and sweeping reforms.
He first did a few simple things to change the culture – things that didn’t cost him anything but a little time and a few cups of tea.

The Solutions

Whether he knew it or not, Bergoglio fought corruption using the same 14 Points that Deming used to improve manufacturing. Take ten minutes and read this article about his work in the Villas, and you’ll start to see what I mean.

Here’s how he solved three crises that others thought were unsolvable:

Trust Crisis

The only way to function in the Villas is to win the trust and support of the residents. Popular support is the only protection an outsider has against the gangs – and it is hard to win. For generations, the only outsiders who came into the Villas wanted something from the residents. Distrust and skepticism is what keeps most people alive there.

So Bergoglio set out to win trust. And he did it by just showing up. In the article, Fr. Juan Isasmendi describes how Bergoglio would just take the bus to the Villa and spend his days there. He walked the streets. He sat around drinking tea with the locals. He asked people about the books they were reading. He came to all of the festivals. He personally showed up and performed Catholic sacraments and rites for the residents. He got to know them personally, and they got to know him. It took years, but he kept showing up  and listening to them until he earned their trust.  In short – he cut through the barriers that stood between him and the least powerful members of his organization.

Like the Sergeants Major who had dinner with my husband and the other junior enlisted, he knew that leadership is a problem-solving handicap, and he compensated for that by going directly to them.  Deming called this breaking down barriers between departments.

Personnel Crisis

Bergoglio needed clergy who were willing to go into the slums and work to eliminate poverty there. But he faced three barriers. He had good priests who were scared to go into the villas. He had corrupt priests who exploited the villas. And he had other priests who just wanted out of Argentina all together.

Bergoglio tackled the problem by getting more involved in the recruitment and development of new clergy. The article describes how the previous system encouraged potential priests to separate themselves from the rest of the world in study. But Bergoglio began insisting that they get out of the study and into the streets – working beside him in the Villas.  He got personally involved in assignments for current priests, strategically moving them to new assignments where they would learn critical skills they needed in the long term.

He did it because he knew that an effective training program had to match the real job requirements. He knew that if you rely on a training system that separates people from the world, you can’t be surprised when those people stay away from their neighbors.  This is what Deming called ceasing dependence on inspection to achieve quality and eliminating the need for inspection by building quality into the product in the first place.

Corruption Crisis

Corruption thrives on secrecy – the ability to make decisions and take action without those in power above you knowing what you’re doing. This is why corruption thrives in large, bureaucratic organizations – because there are so many layers that’s is easy to hide from those at the top.  Those directly below the corruption –  the ones most hurt by it – usually know exactly what’s going on. They just don’t feel like they can safely report it or that anyone above them will help them. In many cases, corruption doesn’t begin as malicious exploitation. It begins when people are overwhelmed with a problem or mistake, when they don’t have the resources to solve them, and feel like it’s better to hide the problem than face punishment from above.

In the article, a priest explains how it was impossible to hide anything from Bergoglio.

You couldn’t just feed him a line of crap because he’d see right through it,” he said. “You couldn’t just say, ‘Everything’s fine, the parish is going great,’ because before long he’d ask a pointed question that made it crystal clear he know perfectly well what was going on. You couldn’t get anything past him, and if you tried, he didn’t buy it.

That’s because the solution to the Trust Crisis also solved the Corruption Crisis. Bergoglio went straight to the bottom of the organization – to the people most vulnerable – and build relationships with them. He drank tea with them. He showed up and started sweeping floors and talking with doormen and chatting with people about their lives. If there was a problem, he heard about it from the source.

Here’s where the real genius comes in. It’s not enough to call people on their half-truths and lies. If you only catch people lying, they’re just going to get better at lying. Bergoglio did more than that. The priest in the article goes on to say that while Bergoglio was sharp and watchful, he never micromanaged and was always “very merciful” to the priests. When he heard about a problem, he didn’t yell at them for not telling him about it. he helped them fix it. He worked through the problem and gave them the resources they needed. He convinced them that they could trust him to help them when he knew the truth. Deming called this driving out fear within the organization.

Enduring Principles & International Applications

There’s nothing revolutionary about how Bergoglio solved problems in the Buenos Aires. Mostly, he just got out of the office, hung out with people, and asked lots of questions over lots of cups of tea. He set clear expectations and made sure he gave his people the resources and training they needed to meet them. If something wasn’t contributing to the mission or was putting up barriers between him and other people, he just stopped doing it.

And that’s what he’s doing now as the head of one of the largest and most corruption-plagued organizations in the world.

He’s taking the bus with other cardinals instead of a limousine
He’s turned down the luxurious papal apartments in favor of a simple apartment in the Vatican guest house
He’s eating meals in the guesthouse cafeteria with everyone else.
He’s wearing simple clothing that’s similar to his old uniform, and his jewelry is pretty barebones, too
He’s ditched the bullet-proof “Popemobile” in favor of an open-top jeep when visiting crowds.
(and, subsequently, he’s driven his security team bonkers!)
He’s popping in to visit industrial workers in the Vatican unannounced
He’s skipping fancy concerts to stay at the office late working on reform plans and personal memos
He’s calling regular Joes himself when he reads a letter than he feels needs a personal response
He’s driving himself around the Vatican in a 30 year old used car instead of a Mercedes-Benz.

He’s doing all of this while replacing old-school leadership with people who will support his vision, issuing clear statements about lifestyle changes he expects clergy to adopt, setting up two internal advisory councils to increase organizational transparency and reform, and establishing a third independent advisory board to oversee reform of the Vatican bank. He’s changing a broken system and the culture that allowed it to happen.

And those big, complex, international problems straining his organization? They aren’t a puzzle to him, because he fought each of them on a smaller scale in Buenos Aires. He’s not creating new solutions to new problems. He’s just using the same proven solutions and enduring principles he used before, and applying them on a larger scale.

The Take Away

Bergoglio’s success at eliminating corruption and inefficiency hinged on breaking down barriers – cleaning out the proverbial dark corners and exposing blind spots – and then getting everyone involved to change the culture that bred that corruption and inefficiency in the first place. And that’s what every success and failure hinges on. Imagine where JC Penney would be now if fired CEO Ron Johnson had spent less time at headquarters and more time talking with clerks and customers. Image if he’d spent a few days folding shirts, working the counter, and talking to customers before he starting making radical changes to stores. It might have saved him, his employees, and customers a lot of grief.

You can do that same thing in your organization – whether you run a little bakery or a Fortune 500 tech firm or a local non-profit – using the same, simple changes. Deming’s 14 Points are based on a simple, beautiful truth: there are no new problems. It doesn’t matter if you’re the Catholic church, a PR firm, a social media manager, or a high school principal.  It’s all been done before, folks.

10 Minute Crisis Management

So start now. Take a hard look at your business and identify a couple of barriers that stand between you, your employees, or your customers. And then do something to break them down. Eat lunch in the break room. Work the front desk one morning a week. Sweep the floor. If you have an assistant, spend a few days learning the ropes of their job. Invite an employee or customer over for a small barbeque. Go to them instead of having them come to you. Visit your suppliers and get to know their operations and staff.

The most powerful thing you can do to prepare for crises and prevent problems is to get out of your office and out of your routine – get out of anything that separates you from other levels of your organization and first-hand information. Get looking. Get listening.

You will be shocked by how much you don’t know – and amazed by how much more you can accomplish.

A physicist by trade, author by choice, a born teacher, a retired veteran, and an adamant problem solver, Frank has helped the White House, federal agencies, military offices, historical museums, manufacturers, and over 250 technology startups get stuff done, communicate effectively, and find practical solutions that work for them. In his spare time, he makes sawdust and watches Godzilla movies.