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Crisis Management 101

January 5, 2015


When it all goes South, what do you do?

Here are five steps to help you master nearly any crisis.

1: Identify Stakeholders

A crisis that no one cares about isn’t a crisis. My messaging team used to maintain a pager gateway. If it was 1988, that was cutting edge. But, this was 2008. One evening we got a notice that the gateway was offline. My engineers were trained to respond to outages. But, they couldn’t get into the locked closet where the gateway computer was located. They called me. I called the owner of the pager service.

Hi, this is Bob.

Bob, this is Rodney Bliss. We maintain your pager gateway and it just crashed. We need someone to unlock the closet so we can get in and restart it.

Can it wait until Monday?

Excuse me?

All my guys are off shift and I’d hate to call someone back just to unlock a door. Can you guys wait on it until Monday morning?

Sure. If you’re fine with waiting, we are fine with waiting.

It was not really a crisis if no one cared.

First step in crisis management is figure out who cares. And not only that, figure out how high up the totem pole they sit. You’re going to need that person’s backing to get resources to help fix this.

There will be people who want to be one of your stakeholders. But, avoid lining up too many sponsors. Fewer is better. Because at some point you will have to start making compromises to get this thing fixed. The fewer people you have to convince to sign off on your compromise the better.

Once you’ve identified your stakeholder. Let them know that you are working on the issue. They are going to get asked and you want to provide them with information to give out to their peers.

2: Figure Out The Cost

Many people will suggest that “Step 3: Identify What Success Looks Like” should come before cost. I understand why they think that. However, as a crisis manager you are going to be making up a lot of your operational parameters yourself. It’s okay to have a vague idea of what you want to accomplish at this point. You can nail down the particulars when you’ve figured out what resources you have available.

You have three sources you can draw on to resolve a crisis: Stored up political capital, people resources and Stakeholder influence. The third one is the least effective. I call it “air cover.” It’s vital to have the air cover, but you really don’t want to use it if you don’t have to. Executives don’t solve Operational problems. They’ve got you for that.

What engineers/developers do you have access to? That’s going to determine how much effort you can put into your solution. I once had to get a SQL database installed in 8 hours. That wouldn’t have been an issue except the team that was responsible for installing SQL databases didn’t want to install it for me. I had the resources on my own team, the messaging and Sharepoint team to install it myself if needed. And I might have gone that direction if my stakeholder hadn’t nixed it.

The political fallout would be too great. You have to figure out how to get the SQL team to do it.

And that points out the third source of influence. You will have to decide how much political capital to spend on fixing this issue. For my SQL database need I went to the manager over the SQL team and called in a favor. But, it cost me.

3: Figure Out What Success Looks Like

Once you know what resources you have to work with you can figure out what success looks like?

Is your crisis a server is down? Success might be a functioning server.

This might seem pretty obvious. But, it’s not really. Our servers are typically redundant. Every server I stand up has a twin. We do it so that if one dies we don’t lose connectivity. In the down server crisis can you get away with a single non-redundant server? Will that satisfy your stakeholder? (Hint: Ask him.) If your servers are virtual and you have access to the Virtualization engineers maybe success looks like a fully redundant setup. This is why I suggest you identify resources first and then decide what you can do with the team you have available.

4: Identify Obstacles

This step is a moving target, and it’s why you as a crisis manager add value even if you can’t do any of the engineering. The server is down? Okay. Where is it? Do the engineers need direct access to the datacenter or can they manage it over the network? Do they have the access they need to get to the affected systems? If not, who do you need to go get it from? Do they need to short circuit some of your processes in the interest of getting the system up quicker? It’s your job to identify as many potential obstacles as possible and then clear them out of the way. Use your Stakeholder. This is why you identified him or her early.

Jill, my engineers need access to the datacenter, but we don’t have time to run them through an entire background check. I need you to grant them permission to get through the doors.

Realize that as you go along, more obstacles are going to crop up. This is also why you don’t want multiple stakeholders. In my example of the SQL database, I not only needed a rush install on the database, I needed 1 terabyte of storage space that the SQL team was supposed to provide. It took a week to get 1TB of storage. Another favor called in as I went to the storage manager and asked for some of his surplus with a promise that I’d put in the paperwork as soon as possible. This step is where many projects and crisis flounder. As a crisis manager you have to avoid getting bogged down in any of the obstacles. I like to envision myself in a tank and the obstacles are someone’s flowerbed that are standing between me and my objective. Yes, I’m going to leave tank treads in their daisies. But, that’s a problem I’ll deal with after the crisis is over.

5: The Clock Is Ticking

Often what separates a crisis from a non-crisis is the schedule. Using my SQL example again, I had to have the database that day. I had a Microsoft resource that would take me 3 months to reschedule. If I got the database we could complete the work. If the database took even one extra day I couldn’t have my tools installed for at least 90 days. It was worth a lot to me to avoid that 90 day delay.

A tight schedule is also your friend. As you go driving your tank through people’s backyards, they are going to be yelling at you to slow down, or even stop. If you are truly trying to solve a crisis, and if you have the proper air cover by identifying your key stakeholder and keeping her informed, you can use your schedule as a way to remove those who want to hold a meeting and talk it over. If you don’t have time for that, then the schedule is your friend.

At this point some of you are questioning my decision making. Go ahead, admit it. You’re thinking

Rodney is crazy. No one can work like that. You’ll step on so many toes that you’ll get fired.

You are correct, that working like this on a daily basis will get you bounced out of just about any company in the world. However, that’s why this is called “Crisis Management.” If you are in crisis management every day, you need to get better at planning and become more proactive.

This tactics are for when something really, really, REALLY has to be done. And it has to be done right now. Trust me, if you become “the guy” or “the woman” who keeps her head while all around you people are losing theirs, you will be seen as a vital member of the team. You’ll be seen as someone who “gets stuff done.”

Fortunately being seen as a miracle worker is as much about having a process as it is about knowing how to fix stuff.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday at 7:00 AM Mountain Time. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and one grandchild.

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