Does it feel like your work day is often an exercise in moving from one crisis to another? Are you always being pulled into emergency meetings instead of having the opportunity to work on the things you planned? If so, you are not alone. It seems the "crisis culture" has gotten out of hand in corporate America with many left wondering if it is possible to get out of this cycle. In many cases, the problem can be fixed. But like most problems, it is almost impossible to fix if you don't first understand why it exists.
What causes a crisis culture?
No one starts a company or joins a company with the goal of working in a culture that just moves from one emergency to another. Just as other aspects of a work environment develop, crisis cultures grow as a result of other cultural challenges.
- Urgent vs. Important - Most organizations go through various planning processes to determine their strategic goals for the next quarter or year and as a result, set priorities based on these goals. These priorities help all employees understand what is truly important to the broader organization. We then use the priorities to help us determine what we should be working on at any given time. This works well when everything goes according to plan. But, what happens in your organization when the unknown hits? Do people evaluate the unknown in light of the priorities and goals or does the unknown move instantly to the top of the list? If the tendency is to drop everything and solve for this new work item, then you are creating or enabling a crisis culture. Following the desire to address the new or urgent item with no regard for the strategically important items will cause an organization to drift off course. This drift might cause an immediate crisis or more often it will start a slow migration away from a strategically focused culture to one that will end up responding to one crisis after another.
- Ignoring Preventative Maintenance - We have seen many strategies only focus on future or long-term projects and do not pay any attention to what it takes to maintain and support the foundation of their business. It is easy to spend our time thinking about competitive offerings or future opportunities due to the exciting nature of the potential. However, just like it is a mistake to continue to drive a car with bald tires, it is a mistake to not perform regular maintenance on our organizations and IT systems. By not investing in the upkeep or modernization of key systems, we increase the likelihood of emergencies occurring and generating a crisis culture. Many failure situations that we see in the IT world could have been avoided with proper care and planning.
- The Hero Culture - A side effect of the first two causes is often the creation of a Hero Culture. When emergencies develop, a hero appears who fixes the problems and receives praise from the leadership of the organization for being there to save the day. As a result, the heroes in the organization learn that they get more recognition and reward from saving the day than they do for making sure everything runs smoothly in the first place. The unintended side effect is that heroes crave emergencies and a crisis culture emerges.
Preventing a crisis culture
Preventing or eliminating a crisis culture is possible, but it does require some cultural changes that may be difficult. Here are a couple items to focus on:
- Preventative maintenance - Much like regular oil changes for our cars or regular visits to the dentist, our work environment needs regular maintenance. To continue to be successful, we must invest a percentage of time on a quarterly basis to keep our systems and processes current. One of the best ways to get these items on the corporate agenda is to determine how they connect to the overall strategy. Find the dependencies that exist between strategic goals and system maintenance so that you can present maintenance in light of risk reduction.
- Reward clean execution and planning instead of those that save the world - This is a tougher item to change. While it is important to thank those that go above and beyond to solve problems, it is even more important to reward those that do the work to avoid the problems in the first place. The difficulty here is that maintenance work often goes unnoticed and unappreciated. To remove the Hero Culture, you need to reward those that bring ideas of ways to improve efficiency or modernize systems in ways that avoid future problems.
- Have a strategy that makes priority clear - Create clear strategic priorities for your organization that align with the overall business goals. Once you have set your strategic goals, make sure that they are communicated out to the broader organization and then use them to guide day-to-day decisions. If done well, they can be a litmus test for the prioritization of crisis items when they do arise.
Can you ever really avoid crisis?
Not really, but you can be ready for it. As you start creating or updating your strategy, make sure to include preventative maintenance and within that, build plans and procedures for handling the most likely crisis scenarios. Doing so is not ignoring a problem, it is being realistic that emergencies will occur. If you know how to react to an emergency, the overall response to the crisis will be better and will allow others to stay focused on more strategic items.
Are you focused too much on the day-to-day and haven't developed a formalized strategy or is your strategy to high-level to actually execute? Learn how to create a practical and business-aligned strategy by downloading the free guide, 6 Steps to an Actionable IT Strategy.