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A Headless Chicken Leading the Blind

Thu, 01/09/2014 - 4:28pm
Alan Nicol, Executive Member, AlanNicolSolutions

My wife coined the phrase, “headless chicken leading the blind,” last week. Her organization is experiencing a bit of a crisis and such is how she described the phenomenon. It’s common enough that we all feel familiar with it without any description.

Something goes wrong and it’s serious enough to affect most or all of the business. Suddenly, customers and executive leaders are not only paying attention, but are paying visits to, “help.” No one wants to show up to the daily progress report meeting with answers like, “We didn’t accomplish anything today,” or “I don’t know,” so everyone is busy doing anything that can result in any kind of apparent activity or result whether it makes sense or not.

The problem extends into enough functional areas and involves enough processes that no one simple correction will solve it. That means that no one really knows who is in charge of solving it, or who should be. Directionless chaos is leading the way and no one person perceives enough of the problem to single-handedly provide a meaningful solution. Thus we have our title phrase.

Generally speaking, the real challenge is not solving the problem. The real challenge is managing the chaos. Everyone is so busy being busy for the sake of appearing like they are solving the problem, that no one can invest the time and attention for critical thought. We all know it, but we don’t like to argue it to stressed leadership, even though we know they should know it to; sometimes the best, most effective activity for solving a problem is simply sitting still and thinking it through.

So, here are some ways that I and my many mentors and colleagues who taught me have successfully brought the chaos under control to solve a complicated problem during a crisis. When I sit down to write them down, I discover how simple in concept, if not always in execution, these lessons are.

The first rule is this. Don’t argue. In crisis, our leaders tend to shift leadership styles. On any other day their style might be that of a supporter or facilitator, but an emergency is not the time for guided self-discovery or debate by committee. We need quick decisions and decisive action. They understand this and change their behavior appropriately.

As a result, our habits of discussing the path forward are not welcome at this time. We need to simply do what we are directed. Unfortunately, if we see a problem with the direction, or if we see a better path forward, we are obligated to share it.

Here is what one of my friends and colleagues could do masterfully and it is a lesson that I took to heart. He would simply say, “yes, sir,” and depart to go do as directed. However, instead of jumping right into what he was directed, he would carefully assemble his thoughts and a few pieces of information or diagrams or other communication aids.

He would wait for his leader to take a deep breath after having given directions and he would quietly return with, “I think I have an idea that might work better and get us to a solution quicker. May I show it to you?” It works very well. No one wants to be argued with, especially in an emergency, but at the same time, everyone is eager for something that will help solve the problem sooner.

The key to presenting the alternative is to first understand the intent and the direction and the perceptions of the person giving directions. We must address those with our own suggestion. Then we can ourselves seek to be understood. Address your leader’s needs or concerns, and then show how your idea will be better.

Another thing we can do to manage the chaos is to help put a stop to the arguing that takes place between peers. Often, in my experience, the point that we argue over the most is our perception of the problem. To force everyone to calm down and focus long enough to clearly define the problem, I suggest the following mantra-like direction.

  1. Accept
  2. Adapt
  3. Act

I know it looks too simple to be useful, but give me a couple of paragraphs to explain why it works. In a crisis, people naturally get very defensive. No one wants to be targeted by the finger of blame, and sometimes people are eager to point it at others. Because of this, it can be difficult to get people to speak plainly when we need it the most. Also, denial and redirection of focus are common defense tactics. None of it helps.

What we need to do collectively is simply accept the situation for what it is so we can focus on correcting the problem. Coincidentally, a way I have succeeded in facilitating this is directly connected to another suggestion I’ll discuss below. Help the acceptance process by stating simple facts about the situation and asking others to help you identify the rest. State the facts of what you know.

Focus on the definitive things that you know. Write them down on the whiteboard or digital collaboration tool. Examples might be as follows.

  • “We can’t ship product until we can prove it meets the regulations.”
  • “The machine is down and our current capacity is X.”
  • “We don’t have the material to produce the customer’s order.”
  • “We don’t have the cash to acquire the capital we need.”

It may not be instantaneous, but with a little effort and the simple focus on the facts of the situation, we can bring everyone’s focus to the task of defining the problem instead of pointing fingers or dodging blame. We can’t solve a problem if we can’t accept it for what it is.

The sooner we accept reality, the sooner we can make a plan to deal with it. That brings us to adapting to the situation. Define the problem: what is it, when or where does it occur, and how do you know. Then look at what your options are, what resources can be made available, and make some plans. This is adapting to the situation.

The final step is obvious; we act by carrying out our plans. The importance of the Accept, Adapt, Act, approach is that it causes us to focus on the problem, to consider our options, and then to act only after we have done so. As I described in the opening paragraphs, the chaos often comes from acting before thinking things through, which of course leads to too much activity to have the time to spend thinking. 

Our survival instincts drive us to act first and think later. That’s fine if we are dodging bullets or saber-tooth tigers, but it’s not so helpful in resolving business problems correctly. By putting the word “act” at the end of your thought process, we force ourselves to calm down and be rational.

Let’s return to the planning part of our problem-solving effort. The frequent reactive direction that both our leaders and we will turn to is to start pulling tools out of our toolbox, willy-nilly, and throwing tools at the problem. Unfortunately, we might not really need all of the tools; we might just need one. The trick is to use the right one, at the right time, the right way.

The purpose of our various problem-solving tools is to organize and communicate information. To even begin using the tools, we need at least some information, so the first thing to do is to collect that information. By examining that, we can better decide what problem-solving tools we need.

Start by making a simple list of what you know, and what you need to know. This is important. The second list is not what you don’t know; it is what you need to know. One of the biggest chaos drivers in a crisis is focusing on what you don’t know. Simplify all of the possible things you could be doing, into a much shorter list of what you should be doing by focusing on what you need to know.

The list of things you need to know will very quickly determine for you what your next, most important actions should be. Stay focused on what you know and what you need to know. It is the best way that I have found to avoid unnecessary activity and to also decide what tools and methods are the best to use.

With a clear focus on what is needed and a simple plan to provide what is needed, it becomes easy to act meaningfully and decisively to start solving the problem. It also makes it easy to address that daily progress report. Simply display your know-and-need-to-know-list and communicate the actions you are taking to change the latter into the former.

If you communicate how long you think each action is going to take, you can facilitate a meaningful discussion about putting the right resources in the right places to optimize your progress. You can also set some expectations about what tomorrow’s report will look like. It will be expected, instead of unacceptable, that the next day’s report will not have the results of actions that take two or more days to complete.

Finally, it makes it easier to deflect those directed tasks that don’t help to solve the problem. The focus on the need-to-know is the key. When the customer or the executive says, “I think you should do [this] to find out [that],” we can respond with, “We don’t feel that piece of information is as critical as these others at this time. Is there some understanding that we are missing?” If that person presses the issue, we can ask what activities they would like to sacrifice in order to do what they suggest. 

That very rational discussion and trade of resources and priorities is not only very comfortable for executive leaders, but it puts realistic constraints on the problem-solving effort. It ends the willy-nilly assignment of tasks and allows a leader to take rational control and provide decisive guidance.  Now the chaos is controlled.

I find, that the few things described above are the key methods for managing a problem-solving effort during a crisis. Don’t argue when leaders go into emergency mode; instead return to suggest alternatives. Guide teams and discussions through the Accept, Adapt, Act thought process to ensure your actions are part of a plan instead of irrational survival instincts. Finally, focus everything on what you know and what you need to know and take actions to transform needs-to-know into things known.

Don’t be one of the blind chasing the headless chicken. Put to practice the tips above and successfully manage the chaos of the crisis. You could be the one to help pull your organization out of the panic and set it upon a decisive path to timely resolution.

Stay wise, friends.

If you like what you just read, find more of Alan’s thoughts at www.bizwizwithin.com

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