One day at work I was met with what felt like a constant barrage of surprises. Upset employees, upset customers, failing systems, you name it. I told a colleague, “I just want one normal day at work. No surprises, no emergencies, just a simple day where we can all do our jobs without feeling like the sky is falling.” “Well,” my friend replied, “if every day is crazy, I guess every day is normal.” He gave me a laugh but didn’t make me feel better.
Thankfully, I’ve since learned how to better manage expectations, anticipate predictable issues, and address small problems before they become big problems. While I’m still met with surprises from time to time, the days of feeling like my hair is on fire are over. Here are a few of the lessons I’ve learned to stop surprises before, while, and after they happen.
“I thought you knew this was a problem!” is a common refrain when people feel like they’re being blamed for not raising alarms early enough. Many people feel like stating a problem once is enough. I agree that it should be enough, but it isn’t. People have different priorities, forget things, have their own problems to worry about, or may not understand that you’re describing a serious problem. When you feel something is going to be a problem, it may not be enough to state the facts that indicate a problem exists. Describe the facts, but don’t stop there. Explain the predictable outcomes of your facts and the impact those outcomes will have on your team, customers, or overall business. If your problem is really going to be a problem, you should treat it as a problem. Repeat yourself, communicate the message in multiple ways, and ask people if they (1) understand the problem and (2) have thoughts on any possible solutions for the problem.
2. Over-communicate, again
Repeating the “over-communicate” tip is not just my attempt to be funny. It’s important to ensure that your audience understands what you’re telling them even if you feel silly repeating yourself. If the person you’re talking to felt you were overly repetitive, wouldn’t they be responding to your sounding the alarm by now?
Also, there’s more to say than what you might share when you first discover a problem. Many big problems don’t happen suddenly: they snow-ball over time. As you continue to see a problem develop, share your updates. “X metric continues to trend downward. If we don’t fix this soon, Y will happen.” Reinforce your original communication that a problem exists with new facts indicating the problem still exists. This helps people understand that (1) the problem still exists, (2) something new needs to happen to prevent things from getting worse, and (3) you are genuinely concerned about the impact this problem will have.
3. Measure problem indicators
While too many key metrics can be problematic, you can introduce problem indicators without making them a focus. Instead of having a dashboard showing every possible problem indicator that exists in your work, create automated alerts based on problem indicator metrics. For example, server administrators do not spend their entire day staring at a screen that shows them current memory usage on each server. They have alerts set up to notify them when memory usage reaches an abnormal level. The metric is ignored until it gets interesting. Your problem indicators should work the same way. Only focus on the metrics when you reach some sort of alarming threshold. If your company’s monthly operating expenses exceed your monthly revenue, that’s an indicator that you may have an unsustainable business (seasonality or exceptional expenditures aside). If your team consistently misses minor milestones on a project roadmap, that’s an indicator you may not hit the final deadline. Of all of these examples, there’s no need to focus on the metric until they reach an alarming threshold. Once the metrics reach the appropriate threshold, though, you’ll be able to dig into the cause of the alarm before a big problem develops.
4. Promote ownership of problems, not blame
Identifying who to blame is counter-productive to solving a problem. Everyone makes mistakes and—unless there was malicious intent involved—blaming someone for a problem will not help anyone. A culture of blame makes people less likely to raise the alarm when they identify a problem. Employees may hide a problem they think can be ignored, failing to evaluate the longer-term consequences of letting a problem fester. You want the exact opposite: people who are ready and willing to describe when something seems off. The best way to do this is to focus less on blame and more on solutions. Praise those who raise alarms early. Praise them again when they identify and implement a solution to solve the problem. Encourage team members to take responsibility for problems, regardless of who caused them. Demonstrate that ownership is the appropriate response to a problem by offering your help in realizing a solution.
5. Consider the risks before starting something new
If you’re starting a new project, using a new tool, instituting a new process, or otherwise doing something that’s never been done before, consider what might happen. Are there any clear risks? Any areas of this effort where someone says you’ll need to be careful? The need to be careful is an indicator of a risk. If there were no risk, no one would have to be careful! Risks come in many forms, such as unintended outcomes, safety hazards, unreliability, or unpredictability. Ask yourself if any activity you are undertaking has an indefinite outcome. If so, call it a risk. Then ask yourself how you might mitigate the risk or avoid the risk altogether.
You may find that avoiding a risk is too costly for your team. Perhaps the entire project itself is a risky endeavor. That’s okay, too, but identifying and communicating the risks to the rest of your team will at least help others prepare for an undesirable outcome.
6. When you see a problem, share it
As soon as you identify something is wrong, share it with everyone who will be impacted. Waiting to see if the problem is really as bad as you think it is or if it will resolve itself on its own will only make the problem worse. Share what you know, even if you are not yet certain that the problem is as bad as you think it is. Simply frame your warning with what you know and what you don’t know. If all you have to go on at this point is your experience and intuition, say that. However, don’t ignore it just because you do not yet have all of the facts. Just be sure to share the reality you know versus what you believe may happen. Starting the conversation is important: hesitating to share a problem has the same impact as ignoring the problem.
7. When you see a problem, fix it
It’s not enough to share the problem. You must also work with people to fix it. Can you personally resolve the problem? If so, do it. Do you need help? If so, ask for it from the person who can help. This goes back to having a sense of ownership: someone must be responsible for fixing problems. If not you, then who?
8. When you fix a problem, share how you found and fixed it
Retrospectives, after-action reports, or whatever else you want to call them are key to helping your organization learn from past mistakes. When you encounter a problem, call together people who may experience similar problems in the future. This includes your peers who may need to identify and fix the problem as well as the stakeholders who will feel the ill effects of the problem. Explicitly document the problem indicators you saw when you identified the problem. If these indicators are not already measured in an automated fashion, this is your opportunity to propose a plan for automating monitoring of problem indicators. Similarly, if the fix for this problem is reproducible and useful in other potential problem scenarios, outlining exactly what steps you took to resolve the problem will help your peers in the future. It may even open the door to ideas to automate mitigation of the problem: good processes or improved tools can prevent future headaches.
9. Understand why the problem occurred
Beyond identifying the problem indicators, ask yourself why the problem occurred in the first place. The 5 Whys is one method you can use to determine your problem’s root cause. Without understanding the nature of the problem, you will not be able to predict whether the problem will happen again. Whenever possible, you want to turn surprising problems into predictable problems. Identifying the root cause and addressing that core issue will stop surprises and reduce the chances of your problem reoccurring.
10. Create a playbook for predictable problems
Take your retrospectives further by documenting the procedures you should follow when addressing predictable problems. A playbook is a collection of reproducible actions you should take when faced with specific scenarios. Your playbook will not have all the answers for every problem, but over time you can develop a very powerful resources for confidently addressing common problems. Playbooks are useful for their writers as well. Instead of having to remember every detail of how you previously tackled a reoccurring problem, you can simply follow the steps. This reduces nervousness in tense situations—especially when dealing with time-sensitive issues—which in turn reduces the likelihood of you taking a misstep when trying to resolve the problem.
11. Have a backup plan
Whenever possible, don’t assume your first plan is going to work. Problems crop up in surprising places and in surprising ways. When you start a new effort or undertake an unfamiliar task, ask yourself what will happen if your first approach doesn’t work. Plan for contingencies before executing your best plan. This way, if Plan A fails, you can rely on a less-desirable but still impactful Plan B.
12. Don't panic
When trying to stop a problem, one of the worst things you can do is panic. It’s easy to feel like problems are out of your control. They are, after all, out of control or they wouldn’t be a problem. However, panicking will not resolve your problem. When you feel stress or anxiety start to take hold, step away for just a moment, take a few deep breaths, and remind yourself that the problem has a solution. Everything will not always be on fire. Your job in this moment is to identify the cause of a problem, fix it, and share what you learn from it. And hopefully, if you’ve followed all of the other advice in this article, you are well-equipped to resolve this problem and ensure problems like it don’t happen again.
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