A manager walked into my office and said, “Boss we have a huge problem”. My heart sunk a little wondering what “huge” meant but by his demeanor I could tell that it was serious.
“Tell me what happened”, I said, but without showing any signs on my face my heart picked up speed and I felt a little tinge of glee. Why you might ask? Because I knew that an opportunity was being presented and I had learned to love a good opportunity.
The world is facing an unprecedented crisis right now. None of us could have anticipated the immense impacts COVID-19 has had on all aspects of life. In many ways, this global crisis has given rise to other kinds of crises in our lives—both personal and organizational. We may perceive crises to be a time we must buckle down and ‘get through it’, but we must also remind ourselves that in times of hardship and struggle, there is also an opportunity to learn and grow.
For many leaders, a crisis is something to be averted. Of course, this makes sense but all the planning in the world cannot avoid the inevitable problems that land and usually at the worst time.
So, let’s talk about crisis. A crisis is defined by a time of intense difficulty, trouble, or danger. It can be started by something personal, like a death, a divorce, an accident, a transgression or a disaster. These events have to be significant enough that the usual coping mechanisms just don’t work. We might try them for a while (run away, medicate, avoid, etc.) but ultimately, they are unsatisfactory because the underlying issue is still there. No one wants to go through the trials, the tribulations and the suffering that comes with a crisis. However, we must confront it head-on if our goal is personal transformation. The opportunity that a crisis presents to us is the chance to grow as a human being. Crises force us to widen our perspective on life and how we live it. In doing so we are able not only to survive the crisis, but use that experience to propel us forward.
How can a crisis be an opportunity? Crises can occur in an organization when a loved founding president leaves the organization. Or, serious financial troubles can cause a crisis – will the company survive?
A major transgression that causes brand image problems can be a crisis. The truth is that a crisis doesn’t have to be huge. It can be an important project that is at risk of failure. It may not cause organizational failure, but it might cause a huge loss in faith.
One thing I learned in more than 25 years in a senior leadership position is that in every crisis there is opportunity. There is opportunity for people to learn an important lesson. There is opportunity for people to come together to solve an important problem. There is opportunity for capabilities to be drawn forth that were not expected. There is always opportunity. We have to stare into the abyss and avoid giving up, running away, losing faith, or some equivalent of self-medicating. It takes courage and most often we have no idea how we are going to navigate.
Here is an example that is meant to illustrate. I was working for a small company that created a catalogue that was mailed out to all of our customers and to lists of prospects. We printed the catalogue at tremendous cost because that was the only way we could market ourselves (before the internet!). The crisis came when someone noticed that the catalogue was printed with the wrong phone number. Fingers were being pointed and fear over ruined careers was running amok. We could have written off the catalogue. We could have fired a few people. But somehow, we knew that that would be moving in the wrong direction.
I gathered the marketing team and after some unproductive discussion about how this happened, I simply asked the team to come up with three possible solutions within two days – no more talk of fault – no more recriminations – we had to face the crisis head-on as a team.
The team came back with three solutions. One solution was to drill holes in the catalogue so that the phone number was obscured – this wasn’t elegant. Another solution was to print stickers and go through each catalogue and place stickers with the correct phone number over the incorrect one, which would be more expensive than the hole idea, but could work. What was decided on in the end was to call the 800 number that was printed in the catalogue and offer to buy the phone number from the owner. It cost some money, but it was worth it.
The opportunity in this crisis was to learn how we would face a crisis. Those were the early days in a company that continued to grow successfully and at the core of the culture was a figure-it-out mentality. We didn’t run away, hide or blame. We faced our problems and using perseverance and ingenuity we came up with solutions.
Now over 13 months into this global pandemic, we have had ample time and experience working through/with crises. As leaders, we must recognize its impacts on our teams and organization. Transformational change for organizations is hard, slow work. But, when a crisis appears, the opportunity is to galvanize people to dramatic, positive change. “Never waste a crisis” was a mantra on our management team because we knew that change was such hard work but in times of crisis lasting change could happen at light speed.
Nick Foster, on behalf of the 1-DEGREE/Shift team, April 30th, 2021