Finding a Path Through the Storm


Andrew B. Forman

December 2007

Summary: How you handle crisis will determine whether it makes or breaks you. (6 printed pages)


Managing Crisis
Addressing Crisis
Critical-Thinking Questions


John was an addict. Each morning, after his first cup of coffee, he would start looking for a "fix." Every week was framed completely within the bounds of his addiction: crisis. Without something going wrong, John didn't know what to do.

John received his highest accolades when big problems occurred. He would work the long hours, and push on other managers and his own employees with the one true goal of resolving the crisis. He would not let anything stand in his way.

While John thought of his management style as "management by exception," it truly was more "management by crisis." That is, any situation first had to be framed as a crisis before any action was taken. This would often lead to commonplace duties languishing until the last minute.

John's employees would often not hear from him for weeks—only to find that, when an emergency did occur, he would camp in their cube for days.

Managing Crisis

At the most basic, crisis management is simply triage, or prioritizing your list to deal with the most critical situation first (just like you see them doing on the television show ER). The difficulty becomes determining what the most critical issue is. Sometimes, it's easy: The car is heading for a cliff, and you just dropped your phone; you stop the car, then pick up the phone. Sometimes, it's hard: You are late for work, the car will not start, and your phone is dead (probably because you just dropped it).

Here are a few methods that are used for determining priority:

· Impact scope (Fallout)—What issue is creating the biggest problem?

· Bubble sort (The Optometrist Method)—When you have a long list, start sorting the list by prioritizing two items at a time ("Which looks worse: one or two?"), until you have a fully prioritized list.

· Group ranking (Vote)—Gather participants to allocate a number of points to each item on the list, and then total everyone's scores.

Addressing Crisis

Okay: Now that you have decided how to order your box of issues, how do you go about figuring out what to do with them all?

Root-Cause Analysis

Root-cause analysis (RCA) is a term that is applied to several different tools that help to determine the "why" of a crisis and develop a plan for resolution. The process is to:

1. Define the problem.

2. Gather data/evidence.

3. Identify problems that contributed to problem (causal factors).

4. Find root causes for each causal factor.

5. Develop solution recommendations.

6. Implement the solutions.

While a full-blown RCA often makes use of Pareto charts and fishbone diagrams, a simple exercise is to use the "5 whys" (or, as I like to call it, "be a three-year-old"). In essence, the "5 whys" is to keep asking "Why?" until a root cause is reached. For example:

Problem: The Washington Monument is disintegrating!

First why: Why?

First answer: Use of harsh chemicals.

Second why: Why?

Second answer: To clean pigeon poop.

Third why: Why so many pigeons?

Third answer: They eat spiders, and there are a lot of spiders at the monument.

Fourth why: Why so many spiders?

Fourth answer: They eat gnats, and there are lots of gnats at the monument.

Fifth why: Why so many gnats?

Fifth answer: They are attracted to the bright lights at dusk.

Solution: Turn on the lights at a later time.

Avoiding Crisis

One the best ways to deal with crisis is to mitigate or avoid it all together. "Thank you, Captain obvious," you might say. Yet the entire study of risk management focuses on doing just this. By developing the discipline of identifying, analyzing, determining treatments, and monitoring risks, the impact of a crisis might be greatly lessened.

Another (possibly) self-evident idea is that of "slowing down to go fast." This bit of wisdom happens to be an old racing adage. To maintain control in a turn, and to ensure the best possible situation upon leaving the corner, it is necessary to slow down the vehicle. This keeps the turn more efficient, and enables the driver to speed up again more quickly. We all recognize how much easier it is to make mistakes during times of rush—especially in a crisis situation, when emotions and adrenaline get involved.

Unfortunately, John's addiction to crisis meant he was miserable when everything was smooth. His need to find a crisis to manage often meant exaggerating small issues beyond reason. He would constantly circumvent processes, burn out employees, and alienate his coworkers.

Then, the company was hit by the dot-bomb IT downturn. As more and more of John's coworkers left for greener pastures or were sacrificed to reduction-in-force (RIF) mandates, John's already stressful load became overwhelming. With all the ghost-work, and the inevitable crises that occur from lack of attention, John was heading toward a cardiac event—running himself down even more with each fire that he fought.

Continual Crisis

Especially when external circumstances exacerbate an already difficulty situation, you might develop a feeling of being completely at the mercy of crisis after crisis. (The hits just keep coming!) Perhaps it feels that, once one fire is under control, yet another flares up—like some sort of freakish whack-a-mole game playing out in your life?

Commenting on this situation, Steven Covey recommends "putting first things first" (Habit 3)—essentially, focusing on what is ultimately the most important, and addressing everything else from that standpoint. As Charles Hummel put it, "Your greatest danger is letting the urgent things crowd out the important." For me, the best response I've found is to find a place of stability, and then move out from there. Just like in a hike in the mountains, you find a place to put your foot, test that it will hold, and then take the next step.

"That sounds all well and good," you might say, "but where is this alleged solid place to start from?" Well, clearly, that is something you will have to answer based on your situation and the core of who you are as a person. But here is a technique that has often worked for me: finding a higher view.

Finding a higher view (other than sounding a little Yoda-esque) boils down to taking a step back and looking at the situation from a larger perspective. The forest itself, and the path to take, will often become much clearer when we step back from the tree trunk we have been staring at for the past eight hours. For myself, I have also found that this technique will help me "settle down" a bit, too. When you back away, it gives you a chance to catch up, remember the overall goal, and focus on what is ultimately most important; and you will often be pointed toward the next step (and the next, and the next).

In a flurry of departmental reshuffling, John got a new boss. Jesse had a reputation as Mr. Unflappable. John had run into him before, and had been shut down by Jesse's insistence on following process and team involvement. John was not very happy with the situation, and he saw yet another crisis looming.

For his part, Jesse saw his younger self in John. He, too, had lived with crisis addiction and knew the siren song of the "tyranny of the urgent." Fifteen years ago, he had behaved in much the same way; until, one day, after bragging about the long hours and accolades he had received, a trusted friend had pointed out (yet again) that his behavior sounded unhealthily like that of an addict. Now, it was Jesse's turn to help. He went to talk to John about his experiences with crisis addiction.

Crisis Addiction

The end results are often the easiest to see: personal burnout, high employee turnover, low morale, even depression. But, when looking for the cause, you might find a behavior of addiction at the heart of the issue. Addictions rarely appear fully formed (and, thus, obvious); instead, they come through enablers that gradually pull us into behaviors we might initially have avoided.

Often, the company culture can be an enabler: When management honors only those who solve the big issues, motivation to work toward avoiding crisis pales in comparison. Even physiology can provide enablement, through an adrenaline rush. While adrenaline in small doses readies us for fight or flight, a steady diet dulls our senses. Like caffeine is for many of us, people who are adrenaline-dependant might need a good panic rush just to get them going in the morning!

Here are a few warning signs of adrenaline addiction in the workplace:

· Constant overtime

· Continual interruption commonplace (cannot get through a meeting without being paged)

· Normal tasks being left unfinished in favor of the high-profile (and less important)

· Bragging/complaining about too much work/responsibility

· Lack of overall focus, relying instead on the next crisis for direction

Clearly, not everyone who works overtime is an addict. But, if this situation sounds all too familiar, I would recommend looking a little bit deeper, and seeking out those who have also hiked this trail.


While we try to avoid crisis, it does happen. When crisis does hit, do not panic (or forget your towel); just prioritize, analyze, and address each issue. Taking a step back to find a higher view might help. And, remember: Ten out of ten race-car drivers agree that, sometimes, you need to slow down if you want to go fast.

Critical-Thinking Questions

· How often is your daily work interrupted by crisis (is it too often or all the time)?

· Are there areas in your life in which you would say that first things aren't being put first?

· Do you recognize any degree of adrenaline addiction in yourself or your coworkers?


· [Various (Wikipedia RM), 2007] Various authors. "Risk management." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. 2007. (Accessed January 8, 2007.)

· [Various (PmPedia), 2007] Various authors. "Risk Management." PmPedia. 2007. (Accessed January 8, 2007.)

· [Various (Wikipedia RCA), 2007] Various authors. "Root cause analysis." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. 2007. (Accessed January 8, 2007.)

· [Covey, 1990] Covey, Stephen R. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. New York, NY: Fireside, 1990.

· [Hayes, 2001] Hayes, Linda. "Addicted to Adrenaline.", November 12, 2001. (Accessed January 8, 2007.)

· [Hummel, 1967] Hummel, Charles E. Tyranny of the Urgent. Chicago, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1967.

· [Lencioni, 2005] Lencioni, Patrick. "The Painful Reality of Adrenaline Addiction." Kravis Leadership Institute, Leadership Review, Vol. 5, Winter 2005, 3-6. (Accessed January 8, 2007.)

· [Various (iSixSigma), 2003] Various authors. "5 Whys." iSixSigma. July 29, 2003. (Accessed January 8, 2007.)


5 whys—Repeated asking of the question "Why?" to determine the root cause of an issue. Five times is a good number, for most issues.

Fishbone diagrams—A graphical representation of cause and effect used to determine root cause, first used by Kaoru Ishikawa in the 1960s.

Management by exception—A management style whereby managers become involved only in the case of issue. If the employee is not experiencing problems, the manager will take no action.

Pareto charts—A type of bar chart in which the values displayed are arranged in descending order. It is named after Vilfredo Pareto. Closely related, the Pareto Principle (80/20 rule) states that 80 percent of problems come from 20 percent of the causes.

RIF—Acronym for reduction in force, a euphemism for an employment layoff.

Root-cause analysis—A set of problem-solving methods used for determining root causes.

Triage—Literally, to sort. Triage is used by medical personnel in situations in which many more are seeking care than are able to provide assistance. Patients are traditionally sorted into three categories, with the most critical receiving care the most quickly.

About the author

Andrew B. Forman has the dubious distinction of having worked for WorldCom during one the worst business crises in history. He is now very happily working as a consultant for Tectura Applied Engineering Solutions in Seattle, WA.


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