[4 minute read]
When we face crisis in our lives or in our organisations, we tend to ask: ‘Why is this happening?’ And perhaps even, ‘Why is this happening to me!?’
The first question can be useful, but it’s also risky to get stuck in a forensic exercise when the situation demands a practical response now.
The second question has a simple answer: ‘Why not?’ Regardless of how thoroughly we manage risk, s**t continues, unfailingly, to happen.
In the end, ’why’ questions are intriguing — the scope for intellectual masturbation is vast! But the answers don’t always move us forward.
Further, ‘Why did this happen?’ often really means, ‘Who can we blame?’ Certainly, get rid of corrupt managers or cut back on that loss-leading department or programme. This will probably help in the short term (as well as producing a few fresh problems). But it may not be enough to change the system/culture/way of being that produced the leader, the non-functioning department, the crisis. To do that requires more than a surface change, it requires a developmental process.
Helping organisations to navigate developmental crises is a significant part of what organisation development (OD) means to me: walking alongside leaders, managers and other organisation members as they face and come to terms with challenging realities, and find ways to respond that transform both the challenges and the organisations confronted by them.
If you think your organisation might be in crisis, here are a few possible first steps…
- Take a breath. Carve out a little time to think.
- Do a reality check: What’s really going on here? Look at the situation as objectively as you can. Maybe it’s just been a really bad day, week, month… Things that look like crises at 10 p.m. after a 16-hour day, often look more manageable the next morning.
- Maybe there is real trouble. OK. Don’t panic or catastrophise. It is almost always possible to make things worse by over- (or under-) reacting. Whatever is going down, start thinking of it as a situation, rather than a disaster. Then ask yourself: does this situation (a) need a response right now, to prevent it from getting worse, or (b) can you afford to take a little time to think more deeply, engage with others, and find a joint way through.
- If it’s (a), do the next right thing. You almost certainly know what that is. Do have a quick consultation with your manager or an appropriate advisor first, if it feels very high risk. Then, take your courage in your hands and just do it. Debriefing and figuring out what comes next can happen later.
- If it’s (b), create an opportunity to look at this situation together with some colleagues — and if it might be useful, find some external support to facilitate the conversation. Sit together and ask yourselves:
- What’s going on here? Form a shared picture/understanding of the problem situation.
- Why is this happening? And what part did we play in creating this situation (if any)? The point of this question is not to assign blame but to build ownership of our
- What is this experience saying about what and how we need to change?
- What are the first steps we should to take? (Generate some options here, and play out the possible consequences.)
- This may be enough to see your way through the crisis. Or you may need some additional internal/external support or a much longer process.
- Find the right support and ask for the help you need. This might come from inside your organisation (from HR, internal audit, another business unit which has faced similar challenges) or from outside (in the form of an OD/change management professional/facilitator). In either case, look for someone who will listen, who will take your views and your needs seriously, who will work with you (rather than play the judge or the saviour), someone who pays attention not just to details, but to the bigger picture — to the next development step that this crisis might be presenting you with.
A last word of advice: In the immortal words of Douglas Adams, DON’T PANIC! Try to breathe and keep calm. Take ownership, but don’t take it all too personally. And remember you don’t have to do this alone!
Crisis is one of those times when we are forced to accept our reality (and the fact that we’re not in control of everything!), to ‘trust the process’, and draw on wisdom that we often didn’t know we had.
Sometimes just beginning to engage with someone outside of the situation is enough to get things unstuck and on the path to development instead of the road to ruin.