How to guide a team through a crisis

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No matter whether your team is self-organizing or not, when the shit hits the fan, they’ll need strict rules and close guiding to manage the crisis.

Clear Responsibilities

First, everyone has to know exactly what they’re supposed to do. Whether it’s restarting crashed servers, capturing log outputs, or just staying the hell out of the way. If you’ve got a situation, you, as the leader, have to make the call who has to act. There’s no time for discussions. Irregardless if you hurt feelings or call on the “wrong” person, you’ve got to take full control and you’ve got to do it fast.

Clear Orders

A crisis is not the time for democratic decisions. If your business is in trouble, it’s up to you as the leader to tell your team exactly what needs to be done and in what order. Now is the time for military style orders. If your team is co-located, just stand up and shout across the room if this helps to make everyone aware of the situation.

Rapid Status Updates

In a crisis there are no kanban boards, nor any issue tracking systems as information radiators. Usually, there’s just chaos and nobody knows what’s going on. Now, you have to collect all facts manually and know who is doing what.

Check everyone’s status every few minutes. Don’t allow anyone to fall off the map for hours without updating you how things are going. In such a high-stakes situation, where failure is usually not an option, the risk is too great for one person getting stuck for too long without telling anybody. You have to find out if someone is stuck and immediately jump in to help.

After the crisis

If you’ve managed to assign the right tasks to the right people, and you made sure nobody got stuck, there’s a good chance that you came out of the crisis without too much damage.

Now, you should immediately call a retrospective meeting, perform a root cause analysis and try to reconstruct the exact route of your team through the situation. This will make sure that you see points for improvements as well as calm down upset colleagues. Some of them might not have grasped the full extent of the crisis, and made upset by your surprisingly harsh tone. By giving them the big picture, everyone should understand how the crisis unfolded and how you navigated through it.

Last, but not least, inform other concerned parties about what happened, how things went wrong, and how you’ll prevent it from happening again in the future.

How did you get through your last crisis? What happened, what was the root cause for it, and how did your team do? Let us know your “war stories” in the comments so everyone can learn!

3 thoughts on “How to guide a team through a crisis

  1. I’m not so sure about the frequent status updates. The time and attention devoted to preparing and delivering status updates could be better spent on task.

    Or are you thinking of highly optimized, low-resolution updates? I can imagine walking through a work area and having people yell “Green!” or “Yellow!” or “Red!” just to identify areas for followup. How well would that work?


  2. I’m thinking about walking around and just asking what people are currently doing and whether they come along or they are stuck. Just a few seconds each. This does not waste precious time for fixing problems (it is a context switch, though) and makes sure that the team lead can help resolve any issues asap.


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