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Dealing with the Stress of a Critical Problem

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

It is easy to say in the calm of an ordinary working day, but, when faced with a Critical Problem, the important thing is not to panic.

Without warning, you are suddenly faced with a crisis. Many people may be affected. It is up to you to take charge and make decisions.

It's a very scary thought.

The example I gave at the beginning of this section is based on a real experience. It happened many years ago when I was a trainee. I was working in a very large hotel with hundreds of guests, and the computer system went down just before the hotel's café and restaurants opened for the day. Although it felt like a crisis at the time, on reflection, there were never going to be any serious consequences for anyone. The worst-case scenario was that the hotel would have to close its foodservice operation and lose money until the problem was fixed. In the event, we didn't close anything. We went to paper systems. I was asked to run a till in the very busy street café. I had to note every sale on a pad and keep cash and manual credit card slips in a box. It was hard work but fun in one of those stressed all-hands to the pump type ways. After four hours, the computer system was restored. I balanced my till and was £2 out. I was pretty proud of that result, and management were pleased with me too. It was a crisis at the time but turned into a positive confidence-boosting experience at the end.

I did panic a bit at the time – thrown into a chaotic situation and worried about making mistakes – but I was soon too busy and too focussed on doing the job for it to last.

When you are faced with a crisis, don't panic. Focus on the here and now. Here are some things you can do to stop feeling overwhelmed when there's a crisis:

  1. Acknowledge that you are worried. Take a minute or two to write down the things that you are worried about, and then put the list in a safe place and resolve to come back to it when you have some breathing space. This will calm your initial fears.

  2. Take stock of the situation. It is not just you affected by the crisis, there are probably many people affected, and they are likely all concerned or even afraid. You are all in this together, and you need to work together to make the best of a bad situation.

  3. Focus on what you can do. You are not powerless, although you may feel it for the moment. Get together with the people that you work with who are present and start working through the SBAR format.

  4. Realise that you cannot control everything. Something has gone wrong. You can't control every possible outcome. You have to work with the team to do the best you can with the resources you have available. Be sure to consider all the possible actions that you do have access to, but don't dwell on the things that you cannot control or cannot put into place immediately. In your discussions with the group, make a plan with the team to put additional support or resources in place as soon as possible.

  5. Schedule some time for reflection afterwards. Agree with the team to meet up after the immediate problems are dealt with to reflect on how things went (without allocating blame or criticism). Make time for yourself afterwards too to decompress, to review how well you managed in a difficult situation, and to relax. Plan time after the crisis to let go of the stress.

These steps will help you avoid becoming overwhelmed and start dealing with the situation as best as you can.

When Is a Crisis Not a Critical Problem?

Not every crisis is a Critical Problem. In the Hollywood film "Armageddon," NASA discover that an asteroid the size of Texas is going to impact Earth in less than a month. That is a crisis, but not a Critical Problem – there is time (not much time granted) to do some proper problem-solving work.

Coronavirus is a crisis, but it is not a Critical Problem. There was time to plan for it – though we didn't necessarily use it well.

Similarly, in business, there are often warning signals ahead of a crisis. If these are taken seriously, then the Critical Problem might be avoided. However, such warnings may be ignored by leaders who don't want to have to make unpopular decisions or think things will work out.

A crisis is: "a time of intense difficulty or danger," according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Only if the onset of the crisis is sudden, is it a Critical Problem. Where you have sufficient warning to do something ahead of the issue arising, then it is not a Critical Problem.

Where you have a warning of an impending crisis, then the problem is usually complex with multiple facets. That is a Wicked Problem, and we will come to those later.

Thank you for listening to this lesson. In the next lesson, we discuss the second type of problem – the Tame Problem.

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Written by

Ross Maynard

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