As much as we try to structure our work time, there’s no scheduling the unexpected. Emergencies and other crises overwhelm us all occasionally; unfortunately, no one has ever invented a predictive model (or crystal ball for that matter) that can actually warn us about everything that might blindside us during the average business day.
In a perfect world, we would expect the unexpected, since we all know from experience how quickly things can go south. But somehow, it rarely turns out that way. Ever the optimists, most of us look forward to the workday proceeding smoothly and according to plan, so we can keep to our schedules and maximize our productivity. And sure, optimism has its good points; but sometimes, we let a positive, can-do attitude blind us to the reality that things can and do, in fact, go wrong.
Advance planning can mitigate some disruptions. But that assumes you can plan for those disruptions…and we human beings share a perverse talent for inventing new problems for ourselves and others. When something comes completely out of left field, you have no choice but to fall back on good, old-fashioned flexibility: you deal with the disruptions as they appear, doing whatever you can to alleviate their effects without utterly derailing your personal productivity.
If you’re lucky, you can hand the problem off to someone else who can solve it more easily and efficiently than you can. In other cases, it’s best to take a direct hand yourself, stepping in and mitigating the damage, so similar disruptions can’t happen again. Whatever the case, the real test of a work process isn’t how well it works when everything’s going smoothly, but how well it performs when you’re slammed with unscheduled events. So in this article, we’ll look at ways to mitigate such events in ways that allow you to keep your workplace productivity on an even keel, without killing yourself with overwork.
Even when all seems well, you sometimes have to stop for a moment and take a good look around. A broad view will give you a better chance of seeing things as they come over the horizon. After all, forewarned is forearmed, as the old saying goes. True productivity requires more than just focus, drive, and determination; as I’ve emphasized many times, it also means putting systems and processes in place to monitor your workflow and safeguard it when things go awry.
If necessary, establish guidelines to direct your responses to various categories of emergencies, from things like unexpected tasks added suddenly to your to-do list to more serious threats like fires and natural disasters. If such guidelines already exist, review them, learn them thoroughly, and don’t hesitate to tweak or even replace them as necessary (assuming you have the authority to do so). If company-wide crisis management plans already exist, study them; and if they don’t, then step forward and propose them. The time you invest in all this will eventually pay off.
You or a consultant can also perform vulnerability audits, which dissects in detail the processes and systems comprising a personal, team, or organization-wide workflow and identifies potential weaknesses that might either cause or contribute to a crisis. Large companies typically use such audits to identify the worst potential problems, especially those associated with employee discontent.
You can adapt the concept to almost any type of emergent situation. For instance, a vulnerability audit might help you identify a productivity bottleneck that develops into a real issue only when a rush job forces people to work faster than normal, or illustrate how things might fall apart if a water main happened to flood your office. Once you know what can go wrong, you can plan for it.
Another way to give yourself some elbow room is to pad your schedule with a little slack time. Try to do so within the constraints of your existing schedule, and don’t overdo it; just make sure your to-do list has enough flexibility to accommodate a bit of the unexpected. This doesn’t mean you have to add empty slots to your schedule just in case, although that’s one possibility. If you go that route and nothing comes up, then hey, you can get a little extra work done on something else or go home a bit early (always a nice option).
It may be wiser, however, to start separating your to-do list into the “Want To Do” and the “Must Do” tasks. Make sure that some of the low-priority tasks on your list have some give in them, so you can reprioritize or postpone them at a moment’s notice in favor of handling something unexpected—instead of wearing yourself to a frazzle by adding more tasks to an already unwieldy schedule.
Handling the Crisis
When an unexpected event does occur, face the situation calmly. Most people either freeze in place or let everything grind to a halt, or they overreact in some way, making things worse. Neither paralysis nor freaking out can help you. Instead, carefully and deliberately assess the situation, and then do whatever you must to fix it.
It helps to reframe the crisis as a challenge, if at all possible¬—something you can turn into an advantage in some way. That may make it easier to handle, at least in the short term. Even if you can’t work the crisis into an advantage, you may learn something from it; so be open to that possibility as you go into action.
And speaking of action: motion beats meditation…as long as you have enough facts to make an informed decision. Don’t go off-half cocked. Unless you find yourself dealing with something obviously dangerous, like a life-threatening injury or an earthquake, reacting too soon may prove as disastrous as reacting too late. And needless to say, deciding how to react on the spur of the moment can be just as difficult, especially when you have to deal with an unfamiliar situation you haven’t planned for. In such a case, metacognition—thinking about how you think—can supply a solution. Even if you lack a crisis management or contingency plan for a particular conundrum, you can train yourself to think in such a way as to quickly decode the issue and invent one on the spot.
Business schools often teach students to use some variation of the SLLR method in crisis situations. “SLLR” stands for the four steps involved: Stop, Look, Listen, and Respond. These strictures gain particular importance when the lines of communication, command, and responsibility have broken down. If you have no idea what to do when a disruption rears its ugly head, Stop. Instead of reacting instinctively (or worse, panicking), take a moment to cool down and think. Assess the situation, absorbing as much information as possible; Look at the obvious factors, and Listen to the people involved so you can learn more. After you have all the facts in hand (or as at least as many as you can effectively gather), Respond. Move forward decisively and untangle the snarl.
If the problem takes the form of a bottleneck or dependency, like those I wrote about in last month’s newsletter, then try to fix it or find a way around it. In the average office, most personnel-related crises trace back to just a few people whose lack of preparation or consideration for others—or, in some cases, sheer orneriness—jams up the gears of progress. Some crisis creators may respond to reason, if their obstructions are accidental or, as I suggested last time, caused by a process flaw or a missing resource. Often, you can handle them by cheerfully lending a hand and providing what they need. Other crisis creators are themselves the root of the problem; they may take a positive delight in acting as what one author has called “a dinosaur-brain” and making life difficult for their co-workers. It doesn’t matter why they do it; you simply have to find a (legal) way to deal with the problem.
The biggest crisis creator in your office may be your boss. I’ve lost count of the number of times people have told me about bosses who consider every task top priority, piling them into their subordinates’ inboxes willy-nilly without pointing out which is truly the most urgent. If you find yourself faced with such a situation, take the bull by the horns and ask your boss, politely of course, precisely which of the tasks needs to come first in his or her estimation.
By the time you respond to a crisis, you should know whether or not you can deal with it alone. Never hesitate to seek assistance whenever you need it; one aspect of true wisdom is knowing when to ask for help. Pull together a team, if necessary, before implementing your response; then split the issue into more easily handled sub-issues, and parcel them out. Make sure everyone knows precisely what they must do to solve their piece of the problem.
If nothing else, try to get buy-in from the key players in the crisis, assuming you have the time to do so. And as you implement your response, do what you can to keep everyone in the loop—including your clients or end users, as necessary. You may find the latter particularly important if you’re a solopreneur, and you face a crisis that stops you in your tracks…a nasty case of the flu, perhaps. In most cases, clients will respond positively to a request for a little extra time; and if they don’t, have a contingency plan in place whereby you can hand over their work to a contractor during the interim.
After the crisis has passed and all the repercussions have died down, take a little time to dissect what happened, so you know how to respond if it ever happens again. This amounts to more than just “Monday morning quarterbacking,” because to paraphrase philosopher George Santayana, “Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.”
If possible, pull together the key people involved in the crisis, analyze what went wrong, and figure out how to keep it from happening again. If you lack the authority to call everyone together, conduct the postmortem on your own. This process may require additional resources or reallocation of existing resources to pull it off, and yes, it may take some time you’d rather spend on something else. But in the long run, every second and cent will be worth the cost if you can keep similar disruptions from shooting holes in your future productivity.
It’s human nature to be hopeful, and thank goodness; that gives us the drive we need to succeed through thick and thin. But truly successful people refuse to let their guards down, no matter how positive their attitudes. They understand the need for both advance preparation and superb flexibility. So have contingency plans in place for everything you can think of, and roll with the punches as they occur—even when they come from unforeseen directions and take unanticipated forms. Most disruptions soon yield to the application of a healthy dose of discipline and creative thinking; and once the crisis passes, you can analyze what happened and put plans into place to head off similar occurrences.
When faced with the unexpected, don’t just throw up your hands in despair. Step forward, take charge, and, no matter how hard a crisis hits you, learn something from the situation. Better yet, find a way to profit from that knowledge. When life hands you lemons in the workplace, don’t just make lemonade—find a way to sell that lemonade for a tidy profit!