3rd November 2016

Prevent Emergencies From Dominating Your Day

My client Colin had a meeting scheduled with a couple to review their revised trust documents. Just two hours in advance, he was putting the final touches on these documents when the office server went down, destroying all of his work from the previous four hours.

This was an emergency – all hands on deck!

Sandy, Colin’s paralegal, quickly contacted the firm’s IT department and convinced them to send someone down to figure out what they could possibly retrieve. She then called the clients to reschedule their meeting for the next day. Within a few hours, IT had worked magic, finding copies of the documents enabling Colin to finish his revisions. However, the emergency diverted everyone on Colin’s team as they reshuffled case work, a member of the IT department, and Colin himself from their other work that needed to be completed that afternoon. The crisis was managed and the client soothed, but hours of time were lost.

This scenario is repeated frequently in offices across the country. Unavoidable emergencies like this one do happen. But other emergencies happen because of poor planning, misunderstanding of the time and resources needed to complete a project, or some form of procrastination. Regardless of the type of emergency, the impact is the same – an interruption that costs hours of lost time, diminished productivity, and significant amounts of stress.

So what can you do when an emergency threatens to take over your day? Here’s an approach that works for many people.

First, define the emergency and clarify whether or not it is truly urgent.

  • What’s the nature of the problem?
  • Is there an imminent safety concern?
  • What is the impact of the problem on your clients, the business, and the broader organization?
  • Is the problem one that must be dealt with immediately, or can it be handled later in the day or tomorrow morning without significantly inconveniencing anyone?

Triage your response to the emergency based on the answers to these questions. Don’t fall into the trap of redefining everyday problems as emergencies. Put out the burning fires that are threatening lives or property; for other problems that do not truly rise to the level of emergencies, schedule time to tackle them when it suits you best.

Once the emergency has been diverted or solved, you now have an opportunity todevelop a plan for dealing more effectively with future emergencies. Conduct a post-mortem—a meeting at which all the relevant team members gather to discuss the emergency. Avoid acting judgmental or assigning blame, which will tend to make the post-mortem into an ineffective exercise in defensiveness and finger-pointing.

Instead, focus on developing objective answers to a few basic questions:

  • What caused the emergency?
  • How could it have been avoided?
  • How quickly did the emergency come to our attention?
  • How effective was our response?
  • Have we done everything we could to minimize or alleviate the damage caused?
  • What will we do differently to prevent this emergency from occurring again?

Use the answers to these questions to shape your team’s emergency-management plan. If you are the leader of the team, communicate your expectations around identifying, managing, and resolving any future emergency. For example, my client Tania, a managing director at a large financial firm, told her team that an emergency is a situation that could result in the loss of a client account or significant revenue for the firm. Other problems, no matter how unexpected or upsetting, do not rise to the level of emergencies and therefore can be dealt with as time permits.

If you are not the leader of a team but simply a team member, ask your manager to clarify what constitutes an emergency. Once the definition of an emergency is clear, decide on and communicate your expectations around resolving any crisis. Tania instituted a color coding system to quantify the nature of any emergency and determine the response. An orange emergency required that the team inform her of the crisis within thirty minutes and then use their skills and relationships to resolve the crisis. A yellow emergency required that she be notified within fifteen minutes; she also had to review and approve the plan to resolve the crisis, and she would be available as an additional resource. A red emergency required that she be notified immediately – interrupted in a meeting, called at home, or otherwise alerted. Tania would then partner with her team in devising the strategy to address the emergency. She would be the point of contact for the client and the internal organization, and she would work alongside her team to resolve the crisis.

Tania had established good support systems — trusted internal and external partnerships — with knowledgeable colleagues which also made her system work well. By having a clear system in place, Tania empowered her team to proactively resolve emergencies, ensuring a quick, thoughtful response with minimal impact on the team’s overall productivity.

Finally, invest time in developing systems and processes that will enable you and your team to prevent emergencies from arising in the first place. Tania has used three strategies to make this happen. First, when she and her team are planning a project, they conduct a brainstorming session on risks. Everyone on the project team is expected to share any and all risks that could possibly derail the project, prevent them from achieving their goals, or result in a crisis. These sessions get a little wild and far-fetched at times, but identifying and naming the risks enables her team to develop contingency plans.

Of course, Tania’s team still experiences a few emergencies. They use them as learning opportunities, deconstructing each emergency to identify the warning signs that the project or initiative was beginning to derail. They use these learnings in their next project risks brainstorming session.

Emergencies happen. To minimize their impact on you and your team’s productivity, clearly define what constitutes an emergency, establish protocols for responding to and handling an emergency, anticipate risks, develop contingency plans, and cultivate a culture that is willing to learn from any and all crises. Following this path can help you and your team eliminate countless hours in dealing with avoidable emergencies.