Preempt Crises by Aggressively Seeking Solutions Before Problems Occur
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Before jumping to how we handle crises and potential catastrophes, let's first consider more routine situations. Think about when you were last in a meeting, hammering out a new plan or strategy for your organization. Did team members keep pressing to get "the right answer," and, when finished, did they bask in all that was good about it? Or rather did they unleash their most aggressive, destructive, diabolical thinking in order to stress test their ideas and identify weaknesses?
More likely than not, they pushed for the pristine "right." Even if they (inadvertently) discovered problems and potential stumbling blocks along the way, team members probably didn't dig to figure out causes and corrective actions. Instead, they brushed off the possibility of an obstacle materializing with a, "Oh, that'll never happen," or they dismissed it with, "We'll figure it out on the fly."
The fact is, problems happen all the time. But, when we have the greatest ability to address them with ample lead-time and lower costs -- when our ideas are still conceptual and haven't yet been acted on -- we don't.
It's a missed opportunity. Our brains have wondrous capacity for creative thinking and problem solving. Trouble is, they're incredibly slow at those functions, and most crises develop far faster than we can figure out what to do, so we get overwhelmed. Without the skills to manage the situation, we flee, fight or cower.
But, that's not inevitable. So, how might leaders and organizations ensure their teams are capable of responding in the event of a disaster?
For starters, they can and should commit time in development processes to stress test plans to identify breaking points. Macabre imaginations are needed -- what if the emergency room loses power? What if a flock of geese cripple both airplane engines? What if market conditions shift against the team's investment strategy? Once they have their scenarios, they need to generate appropriate alternatives and then aggressively "war game" those to find flaws. The goal is to help make the team be ready for abnormal situations.
It's this approach that saved the day for Atul Gawande, a surgeon at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital and writer for The New Yorker. In an interview, he describes removing a patient's adrenal gland laparoscopically, a procedure he'd performed dozens of times; but this operation was more complex. The patient's tumor was behind his liver and burrowed firmly against his vena cava, the vessel that pumps blood to the heart.
Before the surgery, the team developed a list of what could go wrong and prepared how they'd react. For instance, the anesthesiologist arranged to have blood made available for transfusion just in case. And good thing. As Dr. Gawande detached the tumor, he nicked the patient's blood vessel, and the patient began bleeding seriously. Disaster was averted because the team's preparations meant the patient could be sustained while the hole was repaired. The patient survived, not because of impromptu heroism but because the team searched for and planned for the worst.
Deliberative thinking and fine-tuning emergency reactions in advance is critical; so, too, is practicing those responses. Take, for instance, what happened in July 1989 when United Airlines flight 232 had a mechanical failure in its tail engine that cost the plane its hydraulic controls. Such a failure had been completely catastrophic on other flights. Fortunately for UA 232, flight instructor Dennis Fitch was onboard, and he had rehearsed how to fly only with the engine throttles. He guided the crew to a controlled crash landing. More than half the passengers survived -- the death toll would have been much worse otherwise.
Leaders play a critical role in ingraining these behaviors. Because we humans are consumed with status, hierarchy and a need for self-esteem, it's not natural to seek flaws in our thinking -- particularly not with our colleagues' help. Instead, we want validation that our thinking is sound, and we get defensive if we're challenged. Put simply, once we've invested time and energy in an idea, we lose sight that what's important is not the plan itself, but how it'll work when put to use.
A friend, who works for an investment firm, bemoans that his analysts develop investment strategies and then "pitch" them to colleagues, emphasizing all that's good, while evading all concerns. They could take a different approach: Presenting the proposal as the product of their best thinking but then soliciting criticism. Better to be wrong in the conference room than in the market, after all.
To combat this tendency, leaders -- including my friend -- must demonstrate and coach team members how to articulate (and accept) misgivings, so that everyone can feel comfortable raising a hand and saying, "This isn't going to work," or, "What if we tried something different," or "I'm having trouble tracking this."
Things will go wrong -- sometimes at crisis level. However, catastrophe need not be the inevitable outcome if we aggressively seek faults in our thinking and correct them before they become faults in our doing.