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Time Management

Understanding the True Nature of Crises

One of the most common mistakes people make is to confuse a true crisis with a looming deadline. This confusion ads a layer of high emotion and franticness to stressful situations that is unnecessary. It is a continual source of amazement that the annual budget process throws so many organizations into months of frenzy. Budget cycles are routine, expected, and predictable. Typically there is a long lead time, yet many respond as though it is a brand new, completely unexpected event. Deadlines are a regular part of business and should be planned for. Not only is the due date known in advance, some influence over the deadline is often possible.

A crisis, on the other hand, is an unexpected occurrence of significant impact that deviates from the normal course of events and requires an immediate response. Crises are new or unique, and the onset is sudden. What makes them so disruptive is the lack of warning combined with the need for immediate response. The ultimate test for whether an activity is really crisis potential is whether it will have serious consequences if not handled. This is very different. The consequences of missing a deadline may or may not be severe, depending on the specific circumstance.

Many factors influence the number and frequency of crises; on a macro level economic indicators, business trends, and company mergers. On a micro level personal style, whether you are a skilled planner and emotional equilibrium all have an impact. Management by crisis is distracting, time consuming and costly. Reducing the number of these instances will help you and your organization become more effective. Think back to the last crisis you experienced:

Was the crisis new to you or to your department?

Have you ever experienced this or a similar crisis before? Was there anything predictable about this crisis?

Is there anything you can do to prevent a similar crisis from occurring in the future? These questions will get you thinking about proactive ways to respond.

Four Types of Potential Crises

  1. High frequency, low impact.

    When a situation happens frequently but carries with it no significant impact, it is usually not a true crisis. It is likely to be a process issue or a system that needs adjustment.

    What to do: Create a procedure for handling these situations more smoothly. Look for ways to streamline key processes in your department.

  2. High frequency, high impact.

     Most things that hit you are full-blown drop dead problems already. It's an environment where there is very little planning and it never seems like there is a calm time. If you are regularly experiencing these, you are in a true crisis-driven environment. This is a high risk and dangerous way to run a department or company.

    What to do: Regular advance planning will help. Encourage staff to bring potential problems up as early as possible. Create crisis intervention teams to respond to situations instead of everyone in the entire department becoming involved.

  3. Low frequency, high impact.

    These are true crises. They do not happen often, but when they do they really matter. You probably plan well, which allows you to sidestep many of the more routine fires, but no matter how much planning you do, some will occur. That is part of the spice of life.

    What to do: Attempt to lessen their impact on you and your team, or department. Add extra time to project estimates to allow for the unexpected and make sure not to start any fires while putting out the current one.

  4. Low frequency, low impact.

    What to do: Don't worry about these at all. They don't happen often, and they don't matter much when they do.

    Routine deadlines that come with a task or an area of responsibility are not the same as crises that are truly new and unique. Planning can ameliorate the effects of both. The calmer you can be the more energy and resources will be available for those truly unexpected, high-impact situations.


Odette Pollar is a nationally known speaker, author, and consultant. President of the management consulting firm, Smart Ways to Work based in Oakland, CA, her most recent book is Surviving Information Overload. Email to share your comments, questions and suggestions: odette@SmartWaysToWork.com. Visit us at: www.smartwaystowork.com call: 1-800-599-8463.

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