4 steps to make sense of chaotic situations at home and work.

Many people are currently facing truly chaotic times both at home and at work. The rapidly changing COVID-19 situation we are working within can be overwhelming and can cause individuals or teams to simply be paralyzed – not able to make decisions or take action.

I draw relevant experience from two very different (yet similar) lines of work. I was a firefighter for 13 years in two of the communities where I lived, and I am currently a design executive and facilitator. Both of these roles are able to effectively deal with rapidly changing situations and when you take a step back you see they both share really similar processes.

I would like to try and break these strategies down into simple steps we all can try with our families or our colleagues and I hope it helps a few people feel like they can take control of what feels like an uncontrollable situation.

Think about a Fire department (or any emergency response) when they show up, the situation is usually out of control and they need to bring it back under control. They have a very simple protocol for doing that and I believe its the same protocol that can be applied at home or at work.

At a very high level this is what they do:

  1. STOP and Look at the big picture. It’s really easy to rush in and get sucked into the first problem you see and completely miss the really important ones. It’s hard to do, but you have to develop a 360 degree view of the situation before taking action. Know that you alone cannot see everything! Rely on your team to be your eyes and ears.
  2. List out all the problems you see around you. Quickly prioritize them based on what seems to be most important or pressing often times you focus on the underlying or root of the problem if you can find it.
  3. Develop the simplest solution possible for the first problem on the list and assign enough resources to it to get it done — take action quickly. Do the same for the next couple problems, working through as many as you can until you have no more resources.
  4. Go back to number step 1 and see if the situation has changed… either because your solutions are working, or because the situation is changing. continue to step 2 etc.

Keep iterating till the situation is under control.

Imagine how quickly this happens over and over again in an emergency. The crew doesnt sit and discuss their options in a meeting for an hour. They don’t play out every edge case and try to build the “perfect” solution. They try something — really fast — and if its not working they try something else. If priorities change, they reassign resources quickly not worried about wasted effort or sunk costs.

You can tackle work in much the same way. Check it out:

  1. Bring the team together and discuss the current 360 degree view from everyone’s perspective. This should be an open discussion (not a debate) people should each have time to articulate the situation as they see it. A great framework for this is an exercise called Conversation Cafe.
  2. Now that everyone shares the same understanding of the context they are operating within, take time to list out all the problems that the team needs to tackle. Prioritize them based on some criteria — often looking at things like impact vs effort will identify things that are the biggest impact for least effort. My friend Jay Malone at New Haircut has a great post about framing problems which is useful for this step
  3. Brainstorm lots of ideas for each problem you choose to solve. Pick the ones that are most promising and think about how you can strip it down to its simplest form so that something can be implemented in days vs weeks. They key here is putting a solution in place fast — even if its far from perfect — to see if its working. Maybe deploy a really rough solution to a small test group to make sure its effective before deploying broadly.
  4. Bring the team back together on a regular cadence (ideally weekly, or in some situations daily) and start back at #1

In the book The Startup Way, by Eric Ries he talks about how this approach was used to deal with the botched launch of the healthcare.gov portal in the US. The team simply iterated through these steps daily, focussing on whatever the biggest problem was and assigning resources, deploying solutions fast rather than waiting for them to be perfectly formed and changing course when needed. Its amazing how quickly a chaotic situation can come back under control.

Again, its pretty much the same set of steps but with different dynamics due to relationships, kids, and the nature of problems.

  1. Bring members of the family together to talk about their experience of the current situation. This may be a couple, or a family with kids, or room mates. Of course parents will want to separate the adult conversations from the kids… no need to worry them about stuff more than they already are. But involving kids and discussing from their perspective might be really positive.
  2. What problems are everyone experiencing? what are their challenges? what are their wins? What wins can we share with others in our community and which of those challenges should we aim to solve first?
  3. Find solutions, either by brainstorming ideas or putting it out there on social media to ask for help. Im BLOWN AWAY at how many innovative solutions are being developed by people all over the world to deal with common social problems. So, find something that looks promising and give it a try.
  4. Set a time to reconvene and talk about how the situation has changed and weather other problems need solving.

Especially in the case of applying this at home, I think it has a tremendous impact on establishing a feeling of being in control and Im guessing that it might be engaging for kids to be part of their own solutions.

I think the key to applying this in any situation is to not let the chaos paralyze you. Breath, take a step back and look at your big picture. Document what you are seeing/feeling, prioritize, fast is better than perfect, re-evaluate and rinse and repeat.

Hope this helps

#StaySafe #StayWell #StayHome

Leading design transformation for Cisco Security