Manage the Is-This-Really-Happening-Crisis.

Crisis graphic

It can happen quickly.  Yesterday your job might have been described as project management. But today it’s much different: you’re desperately scrambling to broker peace between mission critical people who are remarkably, surprisingly angry at each other (or you).

Yesterday it was all just so eminently blog-able and fun: “I’m facilitating collaboration right at the intersection of Mission and Capability! We’re all moving incrementally toward the objective! These people are amazing!” Ahhhhhh. Your mom clicked “Like.”

But that was yesterday. Now you’re just trying to get everyone through to tomorrow.


Welcome to the is-this-really-happening crisis.

What are your rules for navigating crisis when you’re the person charged with holding it all together?  I’m not talking about the little stuff. I’m talking massively complex, months-long, high stakes projects–suddenly at-risk.

Back to the part where your stakeholders are screaming at each other. People, who by all appearances are adults, now look like puffy-faced two year-olds, threatening to drag the whole thing down because of some personal slight from a year ago. Yesterday’s group dynamism has been supplanted by some sort of malignancy: a sense of dread that you’re not all in it together, actually. It hangs over everyone’s heads like a mildewed blanket.

There could be big dollars on the line, or lives affected, or reputations tarnished. That’s the kind of crisis we’re talking about here, and you’re in the middle of it.

Let’s pause: This post isn’t about your character. One hopes that character traits like integrity, resolve, and passion won’t waver even under duress. The problem is that you can quite easily fail at crisis management while being a person of high character. Happens to the best of us.

And when high character individuals fail at managing through crisis, the failure often arises from the absence of durable points of reference. In other words, you’ve got high character, but you choose to wing it in tough situations. And then, more often than not, you lose.

Durable points of reference are still true and efficacious even on the most dramatic, forehead-veins-bulging day. Unlike winging it, when people throw tantrums like toddlers, having durable points of reference gives the project manager something immovable to lean on no matter what.

At S&C, points of reference take the form of rules, and we don’t enter true crises without them.  They are as important to us as a compass is to a backcountry trekker after night falls. The compass stays true, no matter how dark it gets. Likewise, if we write our rules well enough, we have a point of reference that stays true even when the crisis becomes most dire.

Thankfully, situations that fully grow into crises–posing bona fide threats to a project–are not common occurrences.  We’ve learned to recognize them.  More importantly, we’ve learned to drop everything and write the rules before proceeding into the night.  The going is about to get rough, which means it’s time for points of reference that are durable, true, and efficacious.

The rules are almost never the same.  Too bad it’s not that easy.  Different crises require different points of reference.  To the left is a whiteboard photo of a rule set we employed to manage through a recent situation.  After we concurred that it had verifiably grown into a gnarly, tooth-bearing, wild-eyed threat (“holy crap, how did we get here?” I remember saying), …  we dropped everything in favor of getting our rule set right.  We wouldn’t take another step forward without a durable point of reference.

During the weeks that followed, not a single email or phone call or document went out without being first judged by those three rules. Everything had to pass muster.  Why were those the right rules for the crisis at hand?  Because they were. Because we knew our project: all the parties, every hidden agenda, the precise location of every landmine, and any possible contingency.

You can do the same thing, because you know every minute detail of the projects you manage. No one can write the rules for your crisis better than you can. You should take pride in that.

As it happened, the rule set shown above proved to be the durable point of reference we needed for that crisis, and we managed to put the threat to rest in due time. Another story for another time.

But those three rules wouldn’t have worked in every crisis we’ve managed through. I can think of several where employing rule 2 (behaving in a 100% policy driven manner), for instance, would have been akin to throwing kerosene on a brushfire. Those were different crises, in need of different points of reference.

You know your project better than anyone. When you find yourself in the middle of the is-this-really-happening crisis, drop everything, and write your rules.  You’ll need them to get through the night.



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