Crisis as Teacher

Tom Peters

Many of you have doubtless been through a personal medical crisis, or one involving a loved one. Other concerns screech to a halt. But once the dust settles, can we learn any lessons from these harrowing experiences that might carry over to business?

1. Perception is everything—and extremely plastic. Time stops, or stretches out interminably. A three-day wait for lab-test results is the equivalent of three months of “normal life.” And I can recall each discrete second, or so it seems, of a five-hour wait during my wife’s recent surgery—normally five hours go by in a flash.

A second is not a second! And that has enormous consequences for everyday business practice. There is no one, true, inelastic reality—e.g., no certain measure of service, quality or value. We invariably fail to give perception its enormous due. Our Western training implies that all phenomena are reducible to measurements about which “the reasonable man or woman could not disagree.” What dangerous bunk!

2. Acknowledge emotion. About six long days after my wife’s crisis arose, my system began to shut down from the stress. For example, I got so dizzy—almost all the time—that I couldn’t even drive. I make this point about the power of human emotion because in business we try to hide such issues. We pretend they’re not part of commercial life, especially in male-dominated operations. We downplay the care and feeding of relationships with customers and vendors; we lament the time consumed in attending to feelings within work groups. In moments of crisis, however, we can readily “see” emotions. Not even the most close-to-the-vest honcho can deny them. We’d do well to remember that such forces, albeit somewhat less extreme (thankfully), are at work all the time—and always cry out for explicit recognition.

3. A little TLC goes a long, long way. Technically, the top doc (surgeon, typically) plays the lead role in resolving a medical crisis. We literally put our lives in her or his hands. Yet as the crisis passes, the most poignant memories are usually of the nurse who took an extra four minutes to give a back rub or explain why some postoperative awfulness is in fact normal as can be.

The business translation is obvious: our top-gun designers, engineers and marketers are pivotal players. But those whom we normally—and mistakenly—call “the supporting cast” (service providers, order-entry clerks, and distribution teams) deserve equal billing. They’ll end up influencing customer perceptions even more than those top guns.

4. We can handle change. My wife left the hospital with a horrid catheter-urine bag contraption. Ye gads! To our own amazement, she, I and our friends adjusted to its intrusive presence within 48 hours, and it almost disappeared from our perceptual screen within 96 hours. That is, we humans can cope with enormous dislocation, fast, and with greater facility than we’d dare imagine. The hurricane of change one readily digests in medical crises, albeit not always with a smile, is undeniable evidence of that.

There’s lots of talk these days that workers aren’t up to the overwhelming menu of change the business agenda presents. But most organizational transformations can’t hold a candle to the personal traumas of illness. It turns out that the true enemies of change, like the hard-line Soviet apparatchiks who tried to dump Gorbachev, are mainly managers fearful of losing power.

5. The need for control. In medical emergencies, one hangs on every whisper, shred of overheard conversation between two doctors, odd gurgle in the gut. And the curative power of information often equals that of our most potent medical palliatives.

What takes place in medicine has one-for-one correspondence in everyday commerce. (Perhaps you’ll recall my recent column on the benefits of keeping people in the know.) Our need to be informed in crisis is almost matched in routine circumstances.

6. Focus. A hundred important “to dos” instantly drop by wayside in the face of an emergency. That “make or break” meeting turns out to be anything but. Crisis, whether impending surgery or football’s “two-minute drill,” demonstrates time and again just how focused we can be if we can truly disregard (or postpone) the extraneous.

Bosses who try to create perceived crises where none exist will come up short; their credibility evaporates from the frequent cries of wolf. However, to spur concentration, accountability and productivity, wise managers bring together people from disparate areas on isolated task teams, then free them of their administrative load. And “time consultants,” though many are snake-oil peddlers, can provide genuinely useful tips to help you either dispose of useless activities or learn to batch the miscellany that distracts from your main task.

In the end, your three-year term in a given post will be mostly remembered by two or three key projects where you made a difference. Though you doubtless will have to perform a ton of routine maintenance along the way, the more attention you can channel into that handful of key initiatives, the better—for you, your teammates, and your employer.

Crises aren’t fun. But they turn out to be pretty good teachers.

(C)1991 TPG Communications.

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