iStock_000000874845XSmallCrisis provides clarity. Crisis reveals character. Crisis shows who is going to step up. A can also either destroy a business, or it can burn away the underbrush of a bloated and listless organization, leaving fertile ground for a new organization to emerge.

To handle a crisis effectively requires an organization to change. Whether its a new competitor or a new product, or a regulatory change, any crisis (sometimes referred to as a fire) forces an organization to change their processes or their culture – sometimes both. Changing any result often requires changing the process or the culture.

Ever wonder what happened to the companies that made buggy whips? Yea, me either. Why? Well, most buggy whip companies went out of business with the invention of the car. Any buggy whip company that went out of business most likely did so because they thought they were in the buggy whip business, when they should have realized they were in the transportation business. Just like today – if you’re in the marketing business, you’d better be embracing social media or else you’ll also soon be out of business. If you’re in business of flying an airplane, you’d better realize that the future may mean you’re not actually IN the airplane.

This works at the individual level too. If you’re the chief french fry making guy and the restaurant decides to no longer serve fries, you’re now out of work (Berkun 188). But if your job is to provide a quality meal (that is sufficiently salty and laden with so much saturated fat that people cannot quit eating at) then you will have a job for life.

What is your business? I mean your actual business, not what you presently produce or the service you provide. If your business is defined by a strict job description, reconsider or else you may go the way of the buggy whip.

“Studying how a culture manages its problems is a powerful way to understand the culture.” Scott Berkun (94)

There is value to crisis, so much so in fact that you may even want to start a small one just to see how your workplace reacts. I wouldn’t suggest actually starting a fire (metaphorical or real for that matter), but you may want to take advantage of when one occurs so that you can learn from it (Berkun 96). A crises can help you see:

  • How the issues get reported it (Berkun 96)
  • Who will respond and how long it will take for the response to happen (Berkun 96)
  • Who decides what issues are worked on first, and how things will be fixed (which is usually a good indication as to who the natural leader is in the group) (Berkun 96)
  • Who does the actual work and who checks to make sure it was done properly (Berkun 96)

While problems and crises can help reveal issues and even create a space for innovation to happen, you need to watch out for more systemic problems – these are the recurring issues that if ignored, will only get worse with time. It’s the broken windows theory. It doesn’t mean you have to be the rule-meister, but you must understand that small systemic problems must be fixed to prevent bigger problems from starting (Berkun 98).

Employee Empowerment

Empowering employees has become a management buzzword. But how often are employees truly empowered? Many times, particularly in Cathedral like structures, management gives lip service to employee empowerment but doesn’t actually look to make any decisions (Berkun 120).

For true employee empowerment to work, management must back their play. By that same token, employees need to be well educated on the other impacts of their decisions so that they can make educated and better decisions. Nobody appreciates a totally rigid, rules-driven structure. And if you think you do just wait until you’re trying to connect on a flight and your inbound flight is late, then the gate agent tells you they cannot open the door to your connecting flight because “that’s the rules.” How do you like that rule rigidity now?

I am in the airline industry and I understand the cost/benefit analysis that goes on when the airlines decide to shut the doors while connecting passengers are still running towards it. However, what is typically not factored in that C/Ba is the lost loyalty of that passenger and the dozens of times they are going to re-tell that story to their friends, family and Facebook.

Failing to provide your employees the ability to think for themselves is not only stupid, it makes your organization look inflexible and unresponsive to change. Is that how you want to be perceived?

Making Decisions

Many people experience paralysis by analysis when they are trying to make a decision. That is, they fail to make a decision until eventually the situation is overcome by circumstances (so eventually the decision is made for you by time and events). Unless you have a time machine you are never 100% certain that the decision you make will be the right one. And if you do have a time machine, please let me know because I’m in the market for a flux capacitor.

It is often better to move any clear direction because as soon as you do you start gathering more data which makes the next decision more informed (Berkun 132).

I have students that get stuck in this rut as well. They don’t know what they want to do with their life – well, I tell them, do SOMETHING! Do anything. If you don’t like it then that’s one thing you can eliminate from your list.

At The End of the Future Workday

So what did I learn from Scott Berkun’s The Year without Pants: and the Future of Work. He reached some interesting conclusions at the end of this book, but one new insight was his realization that once the fun  part of any project is over there’s a bunch of things left over that nobody wants to do. Maybe this is why wrapping up a project is the hardest thing to do (Berkun 147). If you want to stand out and add value, be there person who brings it home – be the relief pitcher and close the deal.

Other key insights are:

  • Self-motivated people thrive when granted independence (Berkun 149)
  • Managers who want better performance must provide their staff with the tools they need, do not let the functional elements drive the product or service (Berkun 149.) Don’t get me wrong. The functional elements of any organization are critical. I can’t tell you how many times legal counsel has kept me from making a really bad decision, or that the HR folks were able to provide critical knowledge or support that I needed. You just can’t let them drive the cart. That’s your job.
  • We can live without all that email. Online conversations, use of chat rooms and discussion boards for managing projects should become new means of communication. Unfortunately, email is responsible for stopping more momentum than it likely ever started. And when someone sends you an email, the buck is officially passed and now it is your problem (Berkun 153).
  • It’s time to look at new forms of communication – the phone still works too (I can hear you Baby Boomers out there saying it), but things like Internet relay chat and discussion boards allow conversations to be more real time, while creating a history, where individuals can go back to see were certain decisions were made and why they were made (Berkun 155). Of course you still need gatekeepers, who make sure that the discussion boards and chat rooms on certain projects are not hijacked by tangential information, so it’s not a perfect system but I still think it is better than the 200 emails I get every morning we’re all I am looking to do is figure out who I can forward them to take care of the problem.

For anything to change however in the workplace the culture must first change. (Berkun 175). Products and services must be designed with the user in mind. And people in the organization must become more focused on defining the job by the outcome rather than around their specific job function. Will the methods used at WordPress become the future of your workplace? Who really knows – maybe the Doomsday Preppers are right and the next crises the business world experiences is a literal armageddon. Then all of this is a moot point I suppose. But let’s assume that tomorrow will come and the next day after that, and I think you’ll start to see more organizations adopting these methods in order to stay relevant. What will you do to keep up?

Berkun, Scott. The Year without Pants: and the Future of Work. San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2013. Print.

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