As a team, we’ve spent plenty of time ‘on the front line’ of crisis management and we’ve put together our top recommendations. In this blog, we’re going to be talking about Crisis Management when there’s a ton of stuff to do – for those of you working in Logistics, Core Infrastructure, HealthCare; this is for you.
Another time, we’ll cover the equally important management of people who have had the rug pulled from under their feet, projects dry up and facing uncertainty. A very different crisis.
Here are our top 10 tips for leading a busy team through a crisis:
- Create a ‘mission control’ space specifically for those people on the ground, doing the real nuts and bolts work to reach you, the leader. Some teams call this a war room (and there’s plenty of literature you can google separately about the pros and cons of using a combative term). Whatever it is, you need the key person/people in charge to be located together and somewhere that others can reach them. This may be a physical space, or it may be a virtual space – it has to be a space where people can quickly and easily give a metaphorical knock on the door and say ‘we think we can see this trend emerging…’; ‘lots of customers are asking….’; ‘Did you know contractually we have x in place with y provider so your plan isn’t working’. Without you being aware of these trends and reacting quickly, you will be permanently on the back foot. Getting the culture where people will come forward with this information is a much larger topic that requires long term nurturing.
- You want everyone really concentrate on solving the problem, right? You do. But as the Leader, that is not your role. Your role is to give your teams the space to do that, which means for you, it’s time to lift your head up and communicate. Keeping your boss, or your bosses’ boss in the dark, however tempting in times of pressure, does not work. It’s tempting. It can feel irrelevant to give updates; a waste of time. But it isn’t. Nothing is more effective at stopping people constantly asking questions and adding pressure than you communicating to them. No one working on solving a problem has ever solved it well by being interrupted by an interrogation (or even a polite enquiry) from the CEO every few minutes. You need to be the spotlight magnet and let the people with specialist skills collaborate in the most conducive environment you can provide. To assist your communications to Senior leaders or external customers/shareholders and you work for a large organisation with the resource; grab an impartial person and get them to be your leadership team shadow and communicator. Their role is to record the story as it unfolds. You may give a briefing at 10am to leadership and say that your objective for the 4pm briefing will be to have x, y and z in place. By 4pm you can easily have had 15 meetings and hundreds of emails and other interactions and for good and valid reasons, nothing you said at 10am is going to materialise at 4pm. Unless you explain that story people who haven’t been on the ground, won’t see that. They’ll see that you said one thing and didn’t do it and the microscope will be back on you and your team. The stress levels will rise. Get your team shadow to record that story and make time for a debrief before any leadership or external updates. If you don’t have this resource, be really conscious of your need to do this for yourself; try and literally record (on your phone) your updates and play them back to yourself prior to your next update so you can identify how the narrative has changed and deliver the rationale.
- Tied to point 2; be comfortable with incomplete data and making the best decision you can. It’s all too easy to want to get ‘just that little bit more’ data; to try and find certainty and reassurance that what you are doing is right. Well, guess what? Almost the definition of a crisis is that there is no certainty. Certainly consult others, certainly critically examine the information you are receiving and absolutely use every scrap of what you do have. But as for reassurance…. Keeping that story about what you had at the time you made key decisions will preserve your sanity as things change and give you a log of what new information came in and when and how you responded to it – but at the end of the day, you need the courage of your conviction that you are doing the best you can.
- So, in a crisis, for you, as leader; there is no certainty. However, you need to create it for others as best you can. Where point 2 is about communicating the actions of your team; this point is about creating clarity for your team. Give them the most certain, most absolute environment within which to work (and not work) that you can. For a ‘round the clock’ project, that might be mandating that everyone must take a minimum of x time off. It might be saying ‘we have no idea what day 4 onwards is going to look like, but for days 1-3; all questions about x go to Person A; all information about y needs to go to Person B’; it might be carving out 30 minutes for everyone to get together and work out a rota pattern based on their family commitments/commute times etc that ensures everyone works to reasonable restraints during the new crisis-reality. Or it might be creating a physical space. Above all, it’s about building trust with the team that you respect their recommendations and expertise; environment isn’t just a physical asset.
- Respect the questions and the decisions of your leaders. They are seeing this with clearer eyes than you; they aren’t in the detail; they have the wider perspective. An example: We had been working on replacing a backend billing system for three consecutive days and nights, very exhausted. Very invested. It was scheduled to be a 72 hour project and at hour 70 (think 4am on a Tuesday) we were not done. We felt we needed only six or so hours more, we were prepared, despite the exhaustion to power through and get it done. The senior leadership made the decision to roll back the project. There was anger, tears, sadness, feelings of failure – you name it and that whole team really felt it. With hindsight, did the leaders make the right call? Yes. It took another 24 hours to get the project right; not six. Pulling the project allowed the necessary changes to be made, everyone to rest up and then a smooth change the following week.
- Start working on a compensation package for those working on crisis mitigation. You will be impossibly proud of your team, they will be digging deep and often working around the clock. Every one of them will at some point either go home and be asked ‘what are you doing this for…?’, or will hit that energy wall and ask themselves why they are doing this. You don’t have to have a fully worked out plan, though it’s great if you do. You do need to be able to say that you have recognised this and you are working on it. Financial reward isn’t everything. You don’t have to spend excessively to compensate people, but start thinking about what people value and how to compensate them.
- Create clear channels of support. Everyone will hit the proverbial wall. Everyone. Even that one resolutely cheerful person that bounds into the office for 5am. Mainly teams will balance themselves out and those not experiencing the crash will boost those that are, but sometimes people are isolated – geographically or through the work they do: you might have lots of developers working together but one satellite compliance team member. Be aware and ensure there is someone whose role it is to check in with people and intervene where necessary.
- Have a bolt hole. This should not be the floor of the disabled toilet (anyone working in crisis management knows: we’ve all been there!). I used to drive to work and due to arriving extra early in these times, had the pick of the car park so chose a south facing spot. A quick 5 minute break to gather thoughts with the best of British sun; was a good re-energiser.
- Be aware of the post-crisis slump – for you and your team. So many things keep your team going during a crisis – camaraderie, adrenaline, the sense of doing something really valuable… During a crisis, all those pesky day to day emails get ignored, time-sheets not completed, expenses not recorded, allowances are made. Then. Reality. Oooof! It’s like coming back from holiday and facing the barrage of things to do and things that have changed, only there’s been no holiday, and you and your team are running on empty. Often having worked nights and weekends to help out, there simply isn’t time for everyone to have a break and it’s straight back on the treadmill. As soon as it is practical, make sure people are able to rest and recover in a way that works for them.
- Contingency plans. It would have been silly to start this blog with contingency plans, as many companies don’t have them but now would be a good time to reflect on whether they’d have been useful and at what level of detail. Whether it’s you next time sorting out the next crisis or not; leaving a legacy of a smoother ride for the next crisis is the upside of this crisis. Too big a topic for point 10 of a blog post. We’ll perhaps do something about this topic in the future.
Good luck! As mentioned, we’ll look at the opposite end of the crisis spectrum shortly – and then maybe the value of contingency planning. Let us know what you think, or what other topics might be useful.