Potential CrisesI’ve written in the past about how we gauge crises with our 3 x 3 matrix.  As a company, we focus on the long, slow occurring crises (the frogs) and the unforeseen, come-out-of-the-blue crises (the godzillas) as these are the crises that most people don’t, won’t or can’t plan for and frequently need help in figuring out how to respond.  And it’s an American/Western bias to focus on crisis prevention as if we were really good we would always foresee and therefore prevent any crisis.

In reality, you can’t prevent every crisis.  You can minimize the consequences of any crisis by careful planning and investing the resources (including time and attention) to build robust systems.  The reality is that cost drives most decisions and it’s hard to justify spending money for a what if situation.

Burying power and utility lines minimizes the likelihood of outages and reduces the time to recover because the lines are protected from falling limbs, ice, poles being knocked over, etc.  But putting lines on poles is faster and cheaper.  Therefore, when a natural disaster occurs – ice storms, wind, tornadoes, fire, whatever – the utility companies always must work around the clock because the lines are destroyed and must be replaced.

A consequence of this thinking is ignoring the time it takes to recover from a crisis.  There are very few godzilla crises – what appears to be a godzilla is usually the result of ignoring the obvious signs leading up to the “crisis.”  It’s the frog crises – everyone knows there are frogs but they’re few in number and not much of a problem until they are a problem.  We are left wondering how it happened and looking for someone to blame.

(Hint: We all are to blame.)

So, you will have to deal with a crisis at some point.  The first impulse is always to fix the problem NOW and be done with it.  But reality rears its ugly head and usually smacks you alongside the head with a clue-by-4 very quickly.  Why?  Because it always takes TIME to respond to any crisis.  In fact, if you can snap your fingers and fix the problem, by definition, you don’t have a crisis.

This is where persistence is needed.  It will take time to

  • Understand the situation
  • Plan the response
  • Assemble the resources
  • Get permission
  • Execute the plan
  • Demonstrate that the crisis is solved.

None of these items occur very fast.

I remember the head of the MIS department at Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard had a sign behind his desk.  It read:

Just write a program.

It was in the era where personal computers were just being introduced and programming a mainframe was an expensive proposition.  But the powers that be would often tell the MIS department to solve a management problem by “just write a program.”  Under the gun and with little time to debug or even properly design the program, the result was usually a mess – a scheduling program would print one job on one sheet of paper for every job being worked on a ship or submarine with the result that one schedule for one ship was a pile of paper a foot high – totally useless.

If you are a leader or a manager, when you are faced with a crisis, the hardest aspect is to have patience in the face of demands to do something right now.  You’ll have to patiently explain the process of recovery, the necessity for the steps, how things will be done and even what can’t be done.  It won’t be easy, but it’s the only way to be successful without lying.

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.