Crisis and the Blame Game – Stories from the Cauldron

Over my career, like many of you, I’ve had to manage crisis situations.  The “Customer” database goes down and the company cannot process a single transaction involving any customer – online, on the phone, in person…  An earthquake destroys the data center…  Everyone’s had their moment in that critical spotlight.  I thought I would take a moment and illustrate some of the approaches I’ve learned over the years.  I do not hold myself out as a shining example of a crisis manager, but these tools have served me well.

Manage Your Stress

A crisis is by definition stressful, and some people handle stress better than others.  A friend of mine long ago told me a story that I re-play in my mind whenever I feel the stress getting too high.  I also use this story to mentor others on managing their own reactions to stress.

My friend was a part-owner in a software company in South America (that he referred to as a Banana Republic).  They had made the mistake of bidding on, then winning, the job to process the election results for President of the country.  It’s election night, the polls are closing, and the software is not working.  In walks the current President, with his machine-gun toting entourage, saying “I need to know if I’m going to be President tomorrow.”  Then he points out the window, saying “You see all those people in the street with their Molotov Cocktails?  Their pretty interested in the answer too.”

Now I embellished the language a little bit to make it more “pithy”, but the situation was quite real. The potential for a civil war, people will die, if your software doesn’t start working REAL soon.  THAT is stress.  The fact that your company is losing a million dollars a day because the website can’t take customers is, by comparison, NOT.  It also keeps me thinking that I’ll make better, more rational decisions, if I don’t become overwhelmed.  That will resolve the situation sooner as well.

Oh, and my friend?  He “managed” his stress well enough to get the software working so that they had a result 2 hours after the polls closed.  He never did tell me who won. (smiley).

The Blame Game

It is a common reaction (I won’t use the word “normal” for this situation) to begin a circular firing squad in a crisis.  It’s not MY fault, it’s YOURS.  This accomplishes nothing except delaying getting to the solution – even if you have found the right person to blame.  I was on a disaster conference call with that “Customer Database Down” situation where the company was losing about a hundred thousand dollars an hour.  The round-robin blame game started.  When, after two minutes, it was clear that it showed no signs of stopping, I raised my voice on the conference bridge.  “Enough.  It’s all my fault.  I caused this.  Blame me.  Now let’s start figuring out how to fix it.”  15 seconds of dead silence was followed by “well, has anyone thought of this idea?”

Blame has no place in crisis resolution.  Save it for the Lessons Learned session after normal operations have been restored.  Even then, blame the process that allowed the mistake to occur rather than the employee who made it.

Creating Order from Chaos

A crisis easily devolves into chaos unless the team is well practiced in dealing with crises.  If they are, then crises likely happen way to often.  Beyond solving the immediate problem, preventing its recurrence is a secondary priority – but one that is often lost in the chaos.  Attempting to instill order or process during the crisis is often as counter-productive as the blame game, the wide-ranging creativity that results from an unusual pressure situation is needed.  During the fire-drill, however, the critical gaps and flaws in normal processes that allowed the crisis to occur can be glimpsed – and missed if not noted contemporaneously.  These are the best possible fodder for the “Lessons Learned” meeting afterwards.  Don’t ignore them, scribble them down somewhere for later thought.  One or two might turn into a rabbit hole later, but there will be gems in there.

Common wisdom has it wrong – Focus on the problem, not the solution

It is common for a theory of the problem to emerge and most everyone gets focused on solving for that theory.  Some percentage of the time, that theory will be true and the problem solved quickly.  Some percentage of the time, that theory will be wrong and all the time spent on the “solution” will be wasted.  When a team is working on implementing a “solution”, make sure that there are others on the overall team who work on the assumption that the “solution” is false and more investigation is needed.  Look everywhere EXCEPT where the solution team will be looking.  Have no pre-conceived notions.  Assume this is the first-ever occurrence of whatever caused the crisis and that it is something no one on the team has ever dealt with before.

There are many other good tools useful in crisis situations, but I’ve written more than enough for today.  No one wants to go to a blog and read an entire book.  I am also sure that readers of this article will have dealt with other types of crises with other types of tools – or even run into situations where my tools would be worse than no tools at all.  I hope you will share those experiences, I’d love to learn from you.

I'd love to hear what you think!