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Dealing with Crises

Is everything a crisis? Make a list of your current "crises" at work. Who put these on your agenda and who decided they were crises?
Karl Palachuk

Karl W. Palachuk
October 14, 2002


Is everything a crisis?  Make a list of your current “crises” at work.

Who put these on your agenda and who decided they were crises?

I worked for a time as a manager of a technical support team at a major computer manufacturer.  My staff supported 7,000 desktop computers with a staff of 20 technicians.  This was accomplished through a system of priorities, which I have since adopted for my own business.

There are four levels of priority.  There is no “2.5” or “1.5” or “double-x crisis.”  Just four options.  And the customer–the person with the problem–gets to choose from three of the four priority levels.

Priority 4 means that there is a problem.  It should be addressed as time permits or when you are in the area fixing something else.  Might be upgraded to Priority 3 over time.

Priority 3 means there is a problem that should be addressed soon.  Most problems are Priority 3. 

Priority 2 means there is a problem that needs immediate attention.  This is the highest priority that a user can assign to a problem.  It generally means that someone cannot get work done (their computer won’t start, email doesn’t work, etc.).

Finally, there are Priority 1 problems.  Priority level 1 is not assigned.  It just happens.  I like to tell people that P1 problems “assign themselves.”  By this I mean that major systems are offline.  The entire network is down.  Or the Internet connection has failed.  Or, there’s smoke coming from the back of the server.

When Priority 1 problems occur, the company is losing money.  People can’t work.  That’s a crisis.

Certain people want to insist that their problem is “Priority 1.”  For example, when the boss’s printer doesn’t work.  I have to insist that this is a Priority 2.  It is urgent and I’ll send someone right away.  But I might have three Priority 2 problems at once.  They are addressed in order of severity.

The core of this system is a simple three-tiered categorization that everyone understands.  Problems are either high, medium, low priority (2, 3, or 4).  A crisis is outside anything you would expect and it affects a large number of users (Priority 1).

At first, I was leery to delay responding to a client.  Then I realized that they know some things are lower-priority.  I’ll get a call, rush out, and be told “Oh that’s been a problem for months.  You didn’t have to come out today.”

Then, when I had a crisis at one customer and needed to cancel an appointment somewhere else, I always found them understanding.  In fact, they’d tell me “If our server goes down, I hope you’ll be here to fix it.”

People instinctively know the relative priority of problems.

And yet most of us get caught up believing that every task on our list is high priority–in fact that it’s a crisis.

Most of the blame for this goes to bosses.  If a boss never says “this is high priority” or “this is low priority,” the worker has to decide.  Workers share blame as well because we don’t communicate.  We don’t ask about relative priority.  And we tend to throw everything on the high-priority pile.

In my business, the distribution of problems looks something like this:

     P1 – Crisis          1%

     P2 – High Pri     15%

     P3 – Medium     74%

     P4 – Low Pri      10%

Most people, when asked to apply a simple scale, will put most of their problems in the middle.  Unaddressed problems will eventually move from P3 to P2 or P4 to P3.

I think most of us assume that this distribution is more like 80% high-priority and 20% crisis.  That’s overwhelming.  If it were true, then you should be overwhelmed.

But it’s not true.

Too many businesses create a culture in which “everything is a crisis.”  How many times have you heard someone say “He put off everything until the last minute and then it’s a crisis”?  He tends to be the boss and the crisis puts several employees in an unproductive tizzy.

When everything is a crisis, people feel undue stress.  People get sick or burned out.  The company pays for this when it has to constantly train new people to replace those it burned out.

And the boss never learns!  Why?  Because she sees a flurry of activity and a constant buzz of people rushing around to get things done.  It all gets done.  And the boss confuses activity with productivity.

All too often we believe that an office of stressed-out, overworked employees is a sign of success.  In fact, it’s just a house of cards.  But the house never comes crashing down because we manage to replace the worn-out cards. 

It is an absurd, wasteful way to run a company.

I’m going to STOP now.  If you’ve had more than one job, you’ve seen all this before.  And right now you’re about to tear into a fit of rage over the memory of a really bad experience.  . . . So we’ll stop.

Got get yourself a cup of tea or decaf coffee.  Relax.  Maybe go for a walk.  Come back when you’ve calmed down a bit.

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