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The Critical Problem

This lesson is a part of an audio course Creative Problem Solving by Ross Maynard

Consider this scenario.

You arrive at work early one morning and realise that the customer ordering and stock management system has gone down. The company's IT manager is on holiday, and the Chief Executive is also uncontactable.

In an hour's time, there'll be 50 customers an hour trying to contact your company with orders or requesting information.

What should you do?

This is clearly a Critical Problem requiring immediate action. It is the sort of problem that few people relish being faced with. Luckily there are some tools we can use to help us make the best of a bad situation.

The Characteristics of a Critical Problem

A critical problem is a crisis – a time-constrained problem where a response is needed quickly.

Crisis situations require two things:

  • Speed of response with clear instructions issued promptly.

  • Leadership with a clear command structure.

The leader does not have to be the most senior person present, but he or she needs to have the authority to make decisions and issue instructions.

The leader is the figurehead for the crisis. Their role is to act decisively (or at least to give the impression that he or she knows what action is needed) and to ensure that actions are taken quickly.

Of course, that doesn't mean that there is only one solution to the Critical Problem, or that it is obvious what the solution is. But something does need to be done quickly.

Tools for Critical Problems

The time pressure of a critical problem can lead to panic or to knee-jerk reactions. But often, the nature of the problem itself is not complex. There is a clear cause (although it may not be immediately obvious), and a fairly standard problem-solving methodology would lead to a good solution.

The trouble is, we don't have time for the standard eight-step methodology – or however many steps your organisation's method has. Time is pressing, and decisions have to be taken quickly. The best tool in such circumstances is the simple SBAR structure.

Let's look at that now.

The SBAR Tool

SBAR is a tool that is used widely in a medical environment. It helps clinicians come to a decision about treatment quickly but in a structured way that considers relevant issues.

SBAR stands for Situation, Background, Assessment, Recommendation.

Although it can be used by one individual alone, in a crisis situation it is helpful to gather together a small team to work through the steps. Time is of the essence, and where a situation is really critical, it should take no more than 20 minutes.

Let's walk through the steps:

S describes the situation of the critical problem. The group should discuss the following questions:

  • What has happened? Here the group should seek to define the problem in one or two sentences.

  • What exactly has gone wrong? If the cause of the problem is known, it should be clearly identified.

  • What are the impacts of the problem? The group should list everything that has happened as a result of the problem. Action will need to be taken in each area of impact.

  • Who is impacted by the problem, and how are they impacted? The group should list all the people or groups affected by the problem and how they are affected. Action will need to be taken for each person and group.

B describes the background of the problem. In some cases, this will not be known, but, with hindsight, there may have been indicators of a potential problem. It is important not to get bogged down in the background, but there are useful questions that the group can discuss. These include:

  • Has anything like this happened before? If so, how did we solve it then, and should we apply the same solution now?

  • Were there any warning signs that a problem might occur? What should we have done to address them, and can we do that now?

  • Do we know of any other organisation that has experienced this problem? Can we contact them for guidance?

  • Do we know of any organisation or individual that might be able to advise?

A is for Assessment. The group should use this section to summarise their definition of the problem being faced. It is a one or two-sentence problem statement along the lines of:

"There is a [PROBLEM/ FAILURE] in the [AREA/ LOCATION]. It is affecting [PEOPLE/ GROUPS] causing [IMPACTS]".

The level of risk to the organisation and to other parties should also be assessed – financial risk, legal risk, reputational risk, health, and safety risk.

"The problem is of [HIGH, MEDIUM, MODERATE] risk to the organisation, particularly with regard to [FINANCIAL IMPACT/ HEALTH AND SAFETY/ MARKET REPUTATION]. The problem is of [HIGH, MEDIUM, MODERATE] risk to [CUSTOMERS/ EMPLOYEES/ PUBLIC/ ETC], due to [FINANCIAL/ HEALTH AND SAFETY/ ETC] issues.

R is for Recommendation – the actions you will take. The group should discuss five categories of action:

  1. Immediate action to stop the cause of the problem if it is still ongoing.

  2. Immediate action to tend to the needs of those impacted by the issue.

  3. Prompt action to provide a short-term "fix" for the problem and restore operations.

  4. Prompt action to follow-up with those impacted by the problem, including addressing any damage, loss, or other impact suffered.

  5. Timely action to set up a problem-solving team to provide a long-term resolution to the problem to prevent future recurrence.

By "immediate," I mean action as soon as possible and certainly within one to two hours. By "prompt," I mean action as soon as the immediate actions are addressed and, if possible, within 12 to 48 hours. By "timely," I mean as soon as operations have been restored with a short-term fix and, if possible, within a few days to a week. That work to develop a long-term solution to the problem would use the tools for a Tame or Wicked problem.

Thank you for listening to this lesson. In the next lesson, we discuss how to deal with the stress of a critical problem.

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Written by

Ross Maynard

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