Too many chiefs

dunesAlthough this week is a ‘think week’ there’s a ‘crisis’ at work at the moment and for today at least I was drafted in to help.  My focus of course is on identifying the strategic actions that we need to take to avoid another crisis like this across our entire business, which has been moderately easy.  Observing the process of crisis management though has brought to mind examples of good and bad crisis management that I’ve been involved in over the years.

I’ve just finished reading The Everything Store, a book about Amazon.com so I will use as an example a crisis that Amazon faced in its early days when it found that it had too many orders.  It’s backlog was increasing every day with no end in sight, orders were being lost, inventory was being lost, customer services calls were going unanswered and the data available to predict and manage the problem was of poor quality and design.

When faced with this type of crisis it’s easy to dive into analysis paralysis, trying desperately to extract meaning and order from the data to allow the crisis to be managed in an orderly fashion, but in my experience this tends to be a mistake for the following reasons:

  1. You setup a ‘war room’
  2. You have too many chiefs in the war room who have too many diverse opinions which you are tempted to discuss and debate, during that debate the crisis gets worse
  3. Chiefs tend to want to see order, and in the early stages of a crisis order is difficult to establish
  4. Even bigger chiefs keep on popping into the meeting and ‘helping’
  5. The existing ‘indians’ and line managers feel pressured to solve the crisis but tend to be stressed out, worn out and demotivated because they’ve been predicting (and living) the crisis for months
  6. The chiefs keep diverting existing line management away from managing the crisis
  7. The chiefs marshal too many people to throw at the crisis, and these people can cause more problems than they solve unless they are familiar with the processes, tools and environment

Of course I’ve described an extreme scenario but it serves to illustrate that in my experience there’s nothing that diffuses the feeling of crisis better than ‘progress’.  The miracle of progress goes something like this, I will use the Amazon example again:

  1. Progress can start small, ideally a small number of people are injected into the existing team who can relieve the pressure on the existing staff and start clearing the backlog
  2. These additional people need to know the processes, tools and environment and so they slot right in without diverting the existing staff or burdening the already overloaded existing line management
  3. The chiefs should be as hands off at this stage as possible, inverting their role and acting as servants, ie only offering help to the existing managers that is asked for
  4. Once line managers and existing staff start to see progress, pressure eases, motivation increases and productivity might increase sustainably
  5. After a few days the chiefs can plot a graph and see that the backlog will be gone in say 20 days and so they can adjust resource levels to increase or slow progress as desired
  6. Big chiefs are now in possession of numbers that give them confidence that the crisis will be averted
  7. All the while the chiefs can be working on more strategic actions in parallel and rebuilding organisational confidence.  Once progress is clear, pressure has reduced, confidence has been established the chiefs to be able to consider implementing more strategic actions without disrupting the progress that’s being made
  8. Any changes that are then implemented in a stable system, rather than a chaotic one, making it possible to actually see the impact that they are making

I’ve only been involved in a handful of crisis situations but its the latter pattern that I typically follow for chronic problems of a logistical nature.

Steve Richards

I'm retired from work as a business and IT strategist. now I'm travelling, hiking, cycling, swimming, reading, gardening, learning, writing this blog and generally enjoying good times with friends and family

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