Sep 20

Managing Chaos

Managers mostly come in two flavors: the fireman and the accountant.  The fireman is a crisis manager.  This is the one you run to when the data center melts down or your product blows up in the face of a child star on television.  They excel at stopping the bleeding by applying tourniquets and enough emergency care to get the patient out of the hospital.  A crisis manager keeps a cool head during all the shouting, ensures everyone is focused on the most important problem, and bulldozes any road blocks that come up.  They are not good, however, at what I call steady-state management.  They get bored, they are addicted to adrenaline.  If there’s no crisis, they spend a little time getting better prepared for the next crisis, then they go to sleep.

The steady-state accountant manager, on the other hand, is keeping things moving day-by-day, and slowly improving the processes to produce more and prevent future crises.  They manage people and processes, not situations.  The accountant ideally thinks proactively, compared with the reactive crisis manager.  The better they do their job, the less you realize their value – or even their existence.  In a crisis, however, they are lost.  They look for what went wrong, where their systems failed them, rather than the main goal of getting back in operation as quickly as possible.  They can often add to the panic rather than push through it.

So where do I fit in?  I’d love to say I’m the ideal mix between the two, but that would just be self-serving and inaccurate.  I do fit in the intersection, however.  I would describe my approach as building order from chaos.  I do manage to keep everyone focused on solving the crisis if one appears, but I don’t make the intuitive leaps that a natural crisis manager can.  When the crisis is over, my first task is to gather Lessons Learned and divide them into two categories: How to prevent the next crisis, and How to respond faster next time it happens.  But unlike the crisis manager, my next step is building the processes to prevent future occurrences along with the plans and tools to respond more quickly to any similar event.  In between crises, my aim is to build robust processes within my group to proactively address future needs and more efficiently produce current results – similar to a steady-state manager.  I will admit that focusing on the detailed minutia of minor incremental improvements, where the accountant shines, is where I begin to lose some interest.

Where is your sweet-spot in this spectrum?