Tuesday, June 4, 2013

On Panic Buttons

Sometimes things happen. Murphy raises his head and gets Mrs O'Leary's cow to kick over the lantern and start a fire.  The minor detail that Mrs O'Leary's cow did not actually start the Great Chicago Fire completely not withstanding, it is an image that is firmly fixed in pop-history.  There are a lot of things like that.

Sometimes stuff happens. 

Sometimes projects fall to pieces for any number of reasons.  Even when the software is "in production" the wheels fall off.  This can happen when we do no planning or when we have planned greatly.  This can happen when we have considered every possible contingency and none at all.

The "Black Swan" lands in the middle of our existence and we find ourselves in a situation we are for which we are absolutely unprepared.How we deal with it is the great question.

Do we rise to the occasion and direct actions and activities effectively?  Do we handle crisis with calm determination to overcome adversity?  Do we roll with problems or do we bully our way through things?

Here are some things I learned that are probably good ideas to keep in mind when the wheels are falling off:

1.  Keep Calm.  No, really.  This is kind of a big deal.  Someone needs to keep their head so why not you?
2.  Understand the Situation. Yeah, this one can be hard.  Particularly when things make no sense.  Still, if you can achieve #1, this becomes a tad more likely.
3.  Communicate Clearly.  Tell people what you know when you know it. Don't mince words.  Don't couch your message in "nice" words.  Say it like it is.
4.  Think.  Some of us remember when folks at IBM had that on their desk.  It is still good advice.
5.  Trust Others.  They can have good ideas, too.
6.  Make Decisions.  That sounds simple, right?  What about when you are not sure what the right decision is?  Still Simple?
7.  Be ready to Change Your Decision.  If you act, and act wrongly, act again to correct it.
8.  Be Honest.  That one is kind of challenging for some people.  And that is a sad thing.  

Will doing those things prevent disaster?  Will they keep everything from crumbling around them?  I don't really know.

What I can tell you is this:  Not doing them increases the probability of collapse, if not disaster.

Do not allow yourself to be drawn into emotional responses and reactions.  Do not, under any circumstances, hit this button:


  1. I would add one to the list, Focus on the problem, not how it happened. It is easy in tense situations to look for people to blame, especially if the desire is to make them clean up the mess they caused.

    To the extent that understanding how you got into a mess can help you get out, that can be time well spent in a crisis. However, as soon as that look to the past turns to blame, finger pointing, or name calling, that is not time spent fixing the active crisis.

    I know of several times I have had to say something along the lines of "we can figure out who's fault it was once we get the darned thing fixed." That enables energies to be spent focusing on the solution rather than anything else.

    1. True enough. Focus on the Problem is really important. The problem is most shops I've seen have kind of usurped that idea as a means to find who should be blamed, or otherwise, find ways to avoid being blamed. Then they can be punished appropriately.