Back in 1979, Charles Osgood of CBS News published a wonderful book called “Nothing Could Be Finer Than a Crisis That Is Minor In the Morning.” A mantra for all newscasters because covering the news is their business, reporting the news is their deliverable. But for all other organizations, this slogan is a STRONG indicator of immaturity, and can even become the kiss of death. Here we’ll look at 3 types of organizational crises and offer a possible way out of such behavior. But first, let’s take two little quizzes. Answer each question from your point of view in the organization, with 1 = Strongly Disagree to 10 = Strongly Agree. You can check the significance of your scores at the end of this article.
People in this organization appear to work better (e.g. faster, more focused) under pressure than when doing routine work ___
People often work through lunch ___
People rarely take a break ___
People sometimes get into shouting matches in offices or hallways ___
Sub-total score ___
I prefer to work under pressure than do routine work ___
I often work through lunch ___
I rarely take a break at work ___
I rarely go out to lunch with friends or colleagues ___
I have more than two active projects to work on at all times ___
I find it hard to stop thinking about project A when I start working on project B ___
Whether I’m working on a project or routine business, at least 50% of the time I’m putting out fires rather than concentrating on how to improve my work, the deliverable, or the way in which the work is accomplished ___
Sub-total score ___
Total score ___
Crisis One: Urgency Addiction
Urgency is a valuable thing – escaping a burning building, getting to the basement when the tornado sirens blare. Urgency gets the heart racing. Crisis gets the blood boiling. Reaction, the way we react when a deadline closes in, is also a form of urgency. But if all decisions are reactive, the underlying physiological system of the individual (as well as the culture underlying an organization) will be supporting and promoting addiction to urgency, to crisis-behavior rather than vision-planning. Sadly, some people in leadership positions believe urgency is the only way to keep staff motivated. And heck, it’s actually easy to keep the crises coming!
There’s an enormously wide spectrum between too much reactive behavior and too much planning. Specifically, being too reactive leads to poor decisions made in haste and fear. And some say too much planning leads to analysis paralysis. More accurately, too much planning is likely to lead to too many plans being attempted at once at the systemic level, causing the chaos of competing priorities. Too much planning can be inefficient, but too little planning makes for an ineffective organization.
Crisis Two: Reaction & Over-Reaction
There is a strong tendency for immature organizations to over-react, to compensate sharply and quickly, as if compensation can only be a one-time event. This behavior is similar to the beginning driver who over-corrects the steering wheel from left to right, then right to left, trying frenetically to stay in the middle of the lane. Mature organizations are more proactive than reactive, but when they do have to make very quick, very hard decisions, they have a vision, a mission, a philosophy to draw on for support. In 1982 Johnson & Johnson faced the Tylenol tampering crisis by turning to its credo: “We believe our first responsibility is to doctors, nurses and patients, to mothers and fathers and all others who use our products and services.” Consequently they immediately recalled 31 million bottles of Tylenol at a cost of nearly $100 million. This reaction brought them global admiration – priceless.
Unfortunately we’ve seen a number of organizations not just react, but over-react to problems far less dangerous than cyanide-laced tablets. One company quickly wrote an absurd policy limiting a specific warranty and rushed it through general counsel rather than just apologize to a small groups of customers and replace a particular item. Another organization over-reacted in a most bizarre way; realizing they had too many projects in the queue, realizing they’d need to re-prioritize all projects and apologize to some customers, the leadership looked at the exhaustively long list of projects and froze…for 3 months! Their over-reaction was to stick their heads in the sand!
Crisis Three: Constant Unnecessary Change
CEOs tend to use the terms “change” and “improvement” interchangeably, but they aren’t the same things. Change is any alteration, while improvement, by definition, means something is meant to get better. Some people claim that change is extremely difficult. Actually change is easy, but not always effective. Improvement can also be difficult, taking precious time and resources. But real improvement lasts because it becomes the new “standard operating procedure.” Change only lasts as long as it’s publicly enforced.
So what happens when leadership has difficulty getting all or part of the organization to improve? One course of action we call “Constant Unnecessary Change.” Leaders impose a change or two every week; get everyone confused, unnerved, and scrambling. Scrambling is good, they firmly believe - agitation is action and action is great! Sadly, no, this isn’t true. Constant Unnecessary Change is only good for driving out employees who are competent and have enough self-confidence to believe they can find a more hospitable environment. For those employees who stay, there will be constant unnecessary frustration at their employer.
What if an immature organization (one well-versed in being reactive) were to try something new, at the team level, department level or top administrative level? What if a champion for planning (that dirty word) could schedule a half-day or day-long meeting during which peers or direct reports reviewed one or more typical “crisis” scenarios? What if, in that session, everyone had to come up with ways to prevent those typical scenarios from ever manifesting again? What if the organization did something it does so well – react – but react ahead of the next crisis?
Consider these revelations from a news story on CBS Sunday Morning August 29th 2010. The report was filed by Mitch Butler and Josh Landis, and in part described the findings of Andrew Healy, Assistant Professor of Economics at Loyola Marymount University (based on the article “Myopic Voters and Natural Disaster Policy”, American Political Science Review, Vol. 103, No. 3, August 2009). “When officials spent more money preparing for disasters, the President’s party got no extra votes. But when the government spent money on relief after a disaster, the President’s party got a boost at the polls. … On average, relief costs tax payers 15 times more than preparation.”
Imagine that – cleaning up a disaster costs 15 times more than minimizing the effects of the disaster beforehand. Reacting is something the government is very good at because we, the voters, elect officials who are willing to waste money very publicly rather than save money quietly preparing behind the scenes (yes, government is a very immature organization, but they do what we allow them to do). Reacting proactively is not likely to happen any time soon at the government level, but it’s a fantastically productive exercise to conduct at most organizational levels, one of many steps towards maturity.
For Quiz 1:
Below 14 = low organizational urgency
14 – 18 = mild urgency
19-26 = medium urgency
Over 26 = high urgency
Below 22 = low personal urgency addiction
22 – 28 = mild urgency addiction
29 – 36 = medium urgency addiction
Over 36 = high urgency addiction
So the next question is, are you more or less addicted to urgency than your organization overall? If more addicted, why? If less addicted, do you find it comfortable/pleasurable coming into work everyday?