Every once in a while, unpleasant events are bound to happen. Eventually, every organization encounters a crisis.
Knowing how to deal with crises is not just a delicate art, but a necessity for businesses to thrive.
Table of contents
- What is crisis management?
- ‘We screwed up’: A real-world crisis example
- How to manage a crisis mindfully: A 5-step plan
- Remain calm in the face of a crisis
What is crisis management?
Crisis management refers to a company’s ability to deal with disruptive or unexpected critical situations that affect the business’ stakeholders, people, customers, and income. It is the process of identifying, assessing, and prioritizing potential risks and implementing strategies to mitigate them.
What is a crisis management plan?
A crisis management plan might include developing a communication plan, establishing emergency response procedures, and training employees to respond to a crisis.
If business leaders, teams, and individual employees are not properly trained to deal with crises, when they inevitably encounter one, they’re liable to panic and make the situation even worse.
Why is a crisis management plan important?
In my 15 years working in product, I can’t even count the number of crises I’ve faced. Early on, some of them made me panic because I lacked the skills to overcome them.
Crises emerge from unexpected situations. Maybe you can relate to one of the following examples:
- Software deployment — After releasing the latest version of your product, something unexpected happens and puts your product down for hours
- Social Network — A customer is enraged with your product and shares a viral story on their social network
- Competitor — A competing product is taking over your customers and you can’t react fast enough
- Press — A journalist writes a strong critique about your company and you start losing customers, investors, and prestige
Anything ring a bell?
Crises emerge for a wide variety of reasons. You may take actions to avoid most of them, but life is full of unavoidable surprises. That’s why knowing how to face reality, as tough as it can be, is a crucial skill to develop.
Let me share with you my strategy for dealing with crises. It has helped me over the years and may also help you.
To demonstrate how this approach works in practice, I’ll walk you through a painful crisis I faced a couple of years ago.
‘We screwed up’: A real-world crisis example
It was the beginning of autumn. The weather was cooling down as I headed to work for a big day. We had been working on performance issues for a month to enable us to scale up. That day, we were launching our new interface.
We started earlier than usual. At 7:45 a.m., the release concluded. I checked our shop, and everything seemed fine.
I felt relieved, but something got my attention. As I refreshed the pages, I noticed the pagination numbers decreasing.
I told a team member I felt something was wrong. He checked our queues and noticed an increasing number of requests.
Without hesitation, he looked at me and said, “We screwed up.”
At that moment, I knew we’d face severe trouble. Panic would worsen the situation. I had to understand the size of the problem. But how?
How to manage a crisis mindfully: A 5-step plan
Here is a five-step crisis management plan to help you wrap your hands around any emergency that befalls your product or business:
- Communicate proactively
- Focus on understanding the problem
- Prioritize solutions
- Identify the root cause
- Apply lessons learned
To demonstrate how this works in practice, we’ll refer back to the example crisis management scenario described above.
1. Communicate proactively
Initially, we couldn’t understand what had happened, but soon we realized that our products had been gradually removed from our shop.
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At 7:45 a.m., we had around 53,000 products available. Fifteen minutes later, we had about 40,000. By 8:07, I had the CEO on the phone with me.
The longer it took us to fix the problem, the more money we lost. Every minute costs us thousands. The CEO was mad and stakeholders were getting irritated. A bad situation for everyone.
In a crisis, you’ve got to be sharp with communication. Here’s my course of action:
- Email — I sent an email to company leadership along the lines of: “We’re facing a severe issue. All products are removed from the shop. Everyone is concentrating on getting this fixed. You will hear from me in around 30 minutes. Sorry for this situation”
- All hands on deck — I sat with the team and made it clear that solving this issue was the only priority; nothing else mattered and we needed all hands on deck. I asked them to close their Outlook and MS Teams and vowed on my end to deal with stakeholders
- Face to face — I approached critical stakeholders personally, informed them of the situation, and clarified that we were working on it. I asked them to call me directly and not distract any developer with the trouble because they were entirely focused on solving the crisis
Every 30 minutes, I wrote another email updating leaders on the situation. As the team clarified what was happening, I kept stakeholders in the loop. It was key to let the team focus on the problem while I dealt with business people.
2. Focus on understanding the problem
It took around an hour to understand what happened. The team noticed that the products were removed from the shop because the new interface dealt with product images differently and the shop would remove products without images.
In theory, all products were available in the shop but without images. Therefore, no product could be displayed.
The problem was that the shop had a process to delete images unrelated to products. In other words, more than 500,000 images were deleted. And we knew that processing that amount of images would take long hours.
I had to share the good and bad news with the business. I informed them we had identified the problem, but fixing it would take a while. We were talking about at least 20 hours of image processing.
Stakeholders freaked out because that meant 20 hours without sales. For them, that’s not an option. Yet, we didn’t have a better alternative, so we soldiered on.
3. Prioritize solutions
Developers didn’t know how to fix the problem, but we felt the pressure on our backs. I asked the team if we could gradually fix it. I wanted to get high-runners live as soon as possible.
When you face a crisis, you need to act mindfully. You may not be able to get everything sorted out at once. Prioritization is fundamental to minimize the impact.
I ran some reports and quickly understood that 10 percent of our products brought 90 percent revenue. Those were the ones I wanted to get back to first.
We got together as a team and used our creativity to make those products available in the shop manually. That would buy us time to fix the rest more calmly.
Fortunately, one developer had a card under his sleeve, and in around an hour, we could get that 10 percent live again.
“The secret of crisis management is not good vs. bad, it’s preventing the bad from getting worse.” — Andy Gilman, president and CEO of Comm Core Consulting Group
4. Identify the root cause
Within the high-runners back for our customers, business people calmed down. With a bit more breathing room, we had time to evaluate the root cause of the problem and fix it.
We understood that running our integration could remove the products again. Therefore, we had to spend time fixing the problem correctly.
That was a long day. We left the office at around 1:33 a.m. and had a solution but decided not to run until the next day. We were tired and didn’t want to risk facing the same trouble again.
The problem turned out to be a stupid image property that we inverted, and the shop couldn’t process it because it had strict validation. A simple mistake that cost the business tens of thousands.
The next day, we triggered the process again at around 7:07 a.m. and, as expected, it took almost 18 hours to get all the products back in our shop.
5 . Apply lessons learned
As the dust settles down, it’s time to get together and learn from the situation. Crucially, I used the word learn and not blame.
You want to ensure the team learns something from the situation, but you don’t want to blame anyone in particular for what happened.
“In crisis management, be quick with the facts and slow with the blame.” — Leonard Saffir, public relations executive
In our case, we learned the following:
- Lack of end-to-end tests — Our tests were mainly unit, smoke, and manual tests. We lacked solid end-to-end tests
- Poor error handling — Our application didn’t deal correctly with the errors reported by the shop. If we had better error handling in place, we’d have avoided all the trouble
- Outdated staging environment — Our production and staging environments were too distinct, meaning running releases on staging would never reflect what could happen in production
- Big bang release is a bad choice — We released a critical process for our whole spectrum of products. We should have released and monitored the results gradually
As we reflected on our learnings, we created actions for our upcoming sprints. I’m happy to share that we never faced this issue again, and despite the problems it caused, we were able to catch up and reach our desired business outcome.
Remain calm in the face of a crisis
Dealing with a crisis is, by default, stressful. There’s no way around that. Yet, I can tell you that your life will get easier once you simplify how your team manages it.
I used to panic and people around me would do the same. That would lead to lengthier crisis management than necessary. The secret is to remain calm, remove distractions, and focus on solving the problem gradually.
“Any deep crisis is an opportunity to make your life extraordinary in some way.” — Martha Beck
Featured image source: IconScout
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