Problem Solving

5 Steps to Handle Any Unforeseen Challenge

5 Steps to Handle Any Unforeseen Challenge
Image credit: Jared Cherup | Flickr

As an entrepreneur, unforeseen challenges are going to constitute the bulk of your workdays. It might be something big, like a long-committed employee who decided to quit or a new competitor emerging in your area, or something small, like a deadline that’s getting pushed back due to technical issues. Learning to face and overcome these challenges without losing your cool or compromising your long-term goals is one of the most important -- yet most difficult parts of becoming an entrepreneur.

Personalities who prefer to plan tend to have a harder time dealing with unforeseen challenges than personalities who thrive in an improvisational setting, but unexpected challenges are universally demanding. By nature, they’re unpredictable and often arise in sudden, unanticipated ways. They may disrupt previously existing plans or increase the amount of time, money or effort necessary to complete an otherwise straightforward task.

Related: 5 Problems Business School Won't Prepare You For

Fortunately, no matter the scale or nature of the beast, almost any unforeseen challenge can be handled with the following five-step process:

1. Do a damage report.

Your first job is to determine how significant the unexpected challenge truly is by analyzing its place in your current startup state as well as its degree of impact. Feel free to call this a damage report. Whatever you call it, your goal here is to understand the scope of the new circumstances which will direct your next course of action, inform your decision making and hopefully help you calm down when first confronted with it.

For example, let’s say your lead programmer just informed you that the team needs another day before launching a development you promised your biggest client. Before trying to scramble together a plan or starting to worry needlessly, consider how this actually affects your business. Start with small questions and work toward bigger ones. How long will the project actually be delayed? Will the project be ruined by being a day late? How will your client take the news? How important is the client to your bottom line?

2. Control your emotional response.

No matter what the results of your damage report were, you’ll need to control your emotional response -- though if the answers to the above questions are scary, this may be exceptionally harder. If you want to come up with an effective, logical solution to the new challenge, you’ll need to remain in a steady, almost stoic, neutral state.

Negative self-talk can be a major problem here. It’s easy to get sucked down by thoughts like, “This is bad,” or, “I can’t believe this happened,” but those are going to fuel panicked thinking and biased views on the situation. Instead, take deep breaths, focus only on the objective qualities of the situation, and try to distance yourself from the problem.

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3. Focus on the long-term goals.

Remember all your long-term goals, and ditch the short-term thinking. This will help you effectively prioritize your needs to address the given situation and help you objectively distance yourself from the problem.

For example, let’s say your director of marketing unexpectedly quit just a week before your biggest ad campaign of the year is going to launch. Is your goal of launching the campaign still going to be met? If not, what would it take to ensure that goal is met? Even longer-term, are your marketing directives for the rest of the year in line to be met? Again, if not, what would it take to ensure those goals are met?

Don’t worry about the short-term problems like working extra hours or lacking a voice of expertise in meetings -- think about your long-term goals instead.

4. Clearly communicate the challenge.

Once you have a clear grasp of the situation, start communicating it to the people around you. Let your marketing team know the director has quit and that the next few weeks will be challenging. Tell your client you’re going to miss the deadline and that you’re working on a solution.

The more upfront, straightforward, and transparent you are, the easier it will be to take the news. The calmer, more informed and more objective you are, the better people will be at helping you find a solution. This also prevents the problematic event of an interested party finding out about a challenge too late to do anything about it.

5. Collaborate or settle on a solution.

This is the most important step, but it’s only effective if you’ve followed all the steps above. With the other steps, every interested party can discuss the problem in an informed, calm and mutually beneficial discussion. If you can, work with others to find a solution that allows you to keep all your long-term goals intact. If not, you’ll have to go it alone. Come up with two or three different courses of action, then select the one that offers the most advantages.

If you apply the preceding five steps to the unexpected or unanticipated challenge in your startup, you should have no trouble mitigating its negative effects and coming up with a plan to overcome whatever new hurdles it’s presented for you. As an entrepreneur, you’re always going to have unexpected crises and situations creeping up on you -- what’s important isn’t how often they happen, but how you respond to them when they arise.

Stay calm, stay focused on the big picture and keep everybody in the loop. Then nothing can devastate you.

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