We have worked with many individuals teams and organisations that are in crisis. Sometimes the crisis is public, corporate and unavoidable. Sometimes they are subtle, drawn out and unrecognised. Sometimes they feel personal, individual and lonely. Within all of this and acknowledging the personal trauma involved there are two truths about crisis that are worth understanding before we start:
1 – Any crisis will get precisely as deep as deep as it needs to get for those involved to learn the lessons required to solve it.
2 – Any crisis provides the alternatives to transcend or succumb. In most cases it is the choices we make that decide which we do.
Crisis is one of the areas where leadership emerges. Those who choose to step in and take responsibility in a crisis, define themselves as leaders. However simply being good at leading in a crisis is not great leadership. Being good in a crisis can lead to “pyromaniac firefighter syndrome” where people deliberately create crisis, for the buzz and satisfaction of getting out of it. This is not the way to sustained success. Sustained success demands not only the skill to lead out of crisis, but also the skill to lead innovation, growth and development.
Below is a simple playbook for those who would choose to lead themselves, a team or an organisation out of crisis.
Step 1 – Declare a crisis
One of the most powerful steps we can take is to acknowledge that we are in a crisis. Sometimes this is not necessary, the crisis is so dramatic that no one is in any doubt. Far more crises are stealthy, they creep up on us, until we find we are struggling to cope. Without a declaration of crisis, those involved are all dealing with the stress and anxiety in isolation, and we will all pull in different directions focussed on solving our own personal inner conflict. Once crisis is declared we can all pull together.
Psychologically there are 3 stages of conflict. Stage one is the kind of day to day conflict we might experience every week, at stage one we are able to care for the others involved in the crisis, the problem itself and ourselves. Stage two conflict is the kind of conflict most of us only experience once a year or so, at stage two we can only take care of the problem and ourselves, we loose sight of those around us. Stage three conflict is the sort of extreme conflict we might only experience a few times in our life, at stage three we lose sight of others and the problem and can only care for ourselves.
If a team are already in stage two conflict, they have already lost sight of each other. We often see teams where everyone has been in stage two conflict for some time. Collaboration to solve the problem cannot occur while everyone is in stage two crisis. If this is the case the first thing to do is for everyone in the team to acknowledge the crisis, realising that we are all in the same crisis (usually) brings us together.
Step 2 – Create Bandwidth
Crisis is a state where our emotions take over, even more than normal. Depending on our personality, our emotions will drive us to do different things to solve the problem. Some will be driven to take action, some will withdraw to assess the situation, some will need to check in on the feelings of others or bring the team together. Each of these drivers can be valid and helpful responses, however if they are pursued in isolation they will irritate those who react differently. For example, someone whose reaction is to get into action will be frustrated by someone who prioritises assessing the situation and vice versa.
After the very initial phase of a crisis we must move from reaction to response. To do this we must create the mental and emotional space to think, both individually and collectively. Having declared the crisis, we must now put other things aside and just create the space. This works at an individual level when something threatening occurs and we need to respond rather than react as well as at a team or organisational level.
Step 3 – Create a Vision
Perhaps running a visioning session in the middle of a crisis is a bit of a stretch, but the word crisis comes from the Greek “krisis” meaning “decision”. And as the saying goes “never waste a good crisis”. Crisis is also an opportunity to galvanise effort towards remaking a situation for the better. What a vision gives us is a destination of hope and optimism that inspires people towards a better future and not only away from an uncomfortable present. Without a vision there is no direction in our escape from pain other than away. With a vision the collective effort will not just take us away from the crisis, but towards something positive, together.
The future is not fixed. The future is always created by those with a vision and the determination to make it happen.
A vision is a defined destination that is inspiring for all stakeholders, that is not limited by what we know how to achieve at present. So make use of the bandwidth you have created to align the key individuals in pursuit of a future destination that all are inspired by. Initially that might just be for everyone to get out safely, as it was for Shackleton on the ill fated Imperial Trans Antarctic Expedition of 1914. A vision simply to escape the crisis can be powerful and motivating however as soon as the crisis abates, the vision must be revisited if you want to avoid the team or organisation splintering.
Step 4 – Create and curate the culture
Having started with something as ambitious as articulating a vision, we must now get into the granular detail of habits. If you managed to get the team to work through a vision, most of them now will be raggedly impatient, desperate to get into action and get away from the crisis. Any leadership will be tested at this point to keep the team focussed on a more abstract approach to solving the crisis, so this is where leadership really counts.
In many cases it is our habits and behaviours that get us into crisis in the first place. If we escape from crisis and avoid splintering as a team and we have not changed our habits, it is only a matter of time before we get into crisis again. It will also take good habits and behaviours to get us out of the crisis.
For example, we can agree how we are going to: communicate, care for each other, check in on progress, listen and so on.
Step 5 – Small steps
Having dealt with the arcane we must now get practical agreeing small and very doable steps for each member of the team. One or two steps at a time – no grand plans – just simple doable things. As soon as the actions are complete the team needs to regroup and quickly agree the next set of actions using the protocols agreed in stage 4 and always in pursuit of the vision agreed in stage 3.
Keep repeating this cycle as frequently as is needed until the sense of crisis abates. Be aware that as soon as the crisis diminishes, you may need to come up with a new vision, before you achieve the previous one.
Crisis crews. like firefighters already have protocols for stages 1 to 4, which is what enables them to be effective in a crisis. If we don’t have these already we need to create them in order to succeed.
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