Crisis, Chaos, Panic, and Its Corollary

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imageThis past month, I had the opportunity to do some software consulting.  It was an interesting environment.  Everything was a swirl of chaos, panicked surprise deadlines, and daily crises.  During one meeting, responding to the latest short-cycle deliverable, one person commented, “…we never have time to do things properly.  Are we going to have time to do this one right…?”

The longer I spent with the organization, the more full my calendar became with meetings.  Some meetings rehashed previous ones, others tried grappling with the latest perceived conflict coming down ‘from on High.’  Others were simply crises responses.

As an outsider, two core issues seemed to be very consistent.  Yes, there were others, but two in particular.  First was poor internal communication between groups.  Second was a lack of clearly defined processes; everything seemed ad hoc, seat of the pants.

Most people tend to bristle when more structure is placed in front of them, when flexibility, creativity, even the ability to initiate something, is taken away from them.  Yet what I experienced was an environment that begged, not for overbearing structure, but for a bit more than there was.

Perhaps 50% of my time was consumed helping the team respond to crises.  Invariably, these ‘crisis’ activities stemmed from the organization not being aware of what other organizations were doing.  The organizations had strong interdependencies yet upstream decisions were ineffectively, incompletely communicated with those being impacted downstream.  The result, budgets being impacted by ‘unplanned’ million-dollar ‘surprises.’  Senior management of entire organizations being sidelined by the need to respond to the crises, and in turn their own staff.

Why the lack of communication?  As a temporary visitor I can hardly claim to understand all the contributing factors.  To a degree, they really don’t matter, right now, here, today.  What was apparent to the observer, to me, was a lack of structured process.  Whenever Organization ‘A’ made a decision, it was often done without downstream consideration, and worse, the decisions had no way of being effectively broadcast.

It’s an interesting corollary: Decisions made in a vacuum can often create explosive pressure.

Whether large scale, or small, professional or personal, we have all experienced the frequently negative outcome of decisions made in a vacuum.  In some cases, it serves to illustrate why leadership is ‘lonely at the top.’  There are occasions where decisions simply have to be made, and it often rests on the shoulders of a sole individual.

As a percentage of the whole, that is the rare occasion though.  The easiest way to minimize potentially negative downstream impacts, is to involve—to some degree—the other parties impacted by the decision and resulting actions.  The annual family vacation is more likely to  be successful, if everyone has a chance to at least provide input.  The same is true at work.  We can rush in, make hasty decisions, and be surprised by the results.  Or we can engage people in a process, and have a reasonably confident expectation as to what the results will be.

Which do you prefer?

(Next article: Ad Hoc vs Structured)

(photo credit: Audrey Johnson)