Crisis management is a tough job. The biggest problem isn’t solving the technical problem — given a little time, you surely can solve it.  It often involves planning and anticipating crises will occur.  Good crisis management has a contingency plan and always gives themselves a bit of wiggle room to avoid the necessary shifting priorities.  Unfortunately, most organizations I’ve worked with don’t exactly perform Crisis Management; they are just always in what I refer to as “Crisis-Mode.”

It plays out something like this:

  1. A crisis situation develops.
  2. All priorities are put on hold and a group of technical leads are assigned to focus on the crisis.
  3. A group of managers immediately request a status update and a time of completion, before the team has had the opportunity to investigate the crisis.
  4. The groups of technical leads discover the problem is much larger than anticipated.  This often involves pushing back the original estimate of completion.
  5. Management requests hourly status reports (often involves around technical, long e-mail explanations or phone conferences).  The technical leads now spend more time responding to questions than fixing the problem.
  6. As the schedule begins to slip, due in part to constant status updates, more “bodies” are thrown at the crisis.   The additional “bodies” do more harm than good, or make no positive impact on the overall estimate of completion.
  7. The crisis is resolved and things return to normal (when you don’t consider the amount of technical debt built up or what band-aid solution was used).
  8. At least one of the projects that lost staff to the crisis is now in crisis — or will be soon.
  9. The cycle repeats.

The biggest problem for the project is often the disrupting priorities. “Crisis-Mode” is difficult if not impossible to get out of once your organization adopts it as a company norm.

A crisis will eventually happen, there is no simple way to avoid it.  However, how we respond to those events can mean the difference between success and failure. When you come upon a crisis, take a moment to evaluate scenarios and outcomes. Consider a few key questions:

  • What if you ignore the crisis or take minimal action? What is the worst that could happen?Make sure you prioritize the crisis and the risks with your ongoing work.  Your ongoing work may be more important than your current crisis.  Often we stop thinking about prioritizing, scoping and analyzing risks when we get in crisis mode like we do with our user stories.  Don’t make the mistake of dropping all your best agile practices just because you’re in a crisis.
  • If you drop everything and go into full-blown crisis mode, what benefits will accrue?Is the only time you’re able to solve big issues when you pull in everyone?  Perhaps your teams are not cross-functional enough to handle issues before they become a full-blown crisis.  Agile teams work best when teams have a wide range of talents, perhaps your teams are too specialized to handle larger problems.
  • If you delay other projects, what consequences will likely occur?If teams are constantly switching priorities to address the latest crisis, it will always impact their velocity. You won’t be able to meet your sprint commitments, unless you’ve padded it appropriately. The context shifting will typically increase the overall time to complete a user story (i.e. you will exceed your team estimates).  I find it’s also nearly impossible to track velocity when a team is in “Crisis-Mode.”  It’s hard to determine exactly how many points did it take away from my velocity.

    Lastly, but certainly not least, a company with a culture of “Crisis-Mode” will typically burn out employees.  Employees who aren’t able to accomplish anything positive will get very tired, and lack a sense of accomplishment; expect high turnover.  Makes sure you properly respond to any delays and ensure you address the causes of burn-out.

  • Are you applying lessons learned from your last crisis?Many organizations in “Crisis-Mode” make the mistake of not having enough time and cutting corners.  Often time that means they cut retrospectives.  So why would they do one after a crisis?

    Unfortunately for their organizations it means they often make the same or similar mistakes over and over.  In addition, they rarely improve their processes or address issues proactively.  Make sure your organizations are not just doing retrospectives but are following up and addressing the issues raised by them.

Next time you find yourself in your next crisis, try to get out of “Crisis-Mode” and start managing your crises by making informed decisions and not just reactionary ones.


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