Tech Life Investments in an uncertain future

The Crisis and the Creative

If you polled my team about my daily agenda, they’d say, “He’s either running to meetings or in meetings.” Glancing at my calendar confirms this: 14 meetings this coming Monday – double-booked for five of them. Sweet.

Yes, I go to meetings all day, but it’s more than that. I’m also managing a constant distracting flood of interesting decisions that find me no matter where I’m sitting. When they arrive, I must make an instant prioritization call: Crisis or Creative?

A Spectrum for Everything

This will be the third system I’ve described regarding prioritization. The Taste of the Day describes how I deal with tactics, identifying and recording tasks that need to be done, as well as a system for punting tasks that are lingering aimlessly. The Trickle List goes strategic and imparts direction for my day — what are the daily investments I want to make in my people and myself?

The Crisis and the Creative is less a system and more a mental model for all of the work on my plate. It’s similar to The Taste of the Day in that it’s a lens by which I look at the health of everything I’m responsible for. The model looks like this:

Crisis and Creative

As my day moves by in a rapid progression of people, tasks, and meetings, I often need to stop and make a snap decision regarding whether or not to engage in whatever is sitting in front of me. In that moment, I place this thing in the model and assess. This is what I’m thinking:

The Crisis — This is any item I’m responsible for which is in Crisis. The definition of Crisis varies on a daily basis and can mean anything from “Word on the street is the quality of this feature blows” to “The program managers say we’re going to miss our date”. Crisis means it’s not working and I need to pay constant attention. Oddly (or sadly), there’s always something in this category. More on this aspect of management in a moment.

The Creative — The title for the other side of the spectrum should be The Strategy, but I’m incapable of not using alliteration, so it’s The Creative. This is anything I’m responsible for which, by investing in or completing, means I’m growing, I built something, I took the team towards new. The Creative are my responsibilities, which take us places either because I have the experience to recognize that they will or because through pure force of will I will make them so. They rule.

These edges are the main reason I’m running to all of those double-booked meetings. Whether it’s Crisis or Creative, activities in these buckets run hot. Whether I’m making sure that someone isn’t going to quit or I’m jump-starting a brand new project at a time when no one has a free second, when I’m working the edges, it’s fast and furious. The issue is that I’m responsible for a lot more than just the work that’s running hot.

See those boring lines in the middle between Crisis and Creative? That’s an important part of the model. Items in the middle are the silent non-Crisis, non-Creative responsibilities that are my team just making it happen. It’s all very important work, but it’s work that occurs with very little investment from me because I’ve hired, manage, and work with competent people who excel at what they do. The middle isn’t responsibilities that I’ve delegated and need to check up on, this is work the team just does, and to understand how to get the work there, you need to understand the edges.

The Crisis

There are those who love the panic associated with the Crisis. They love the motivating threat of imminent disaster. This is especially true for managers because a Crisis gives them super powers. When it hits the fan, the team can be freaked to the point that they are incapable of making a decision because they don’t want to make it worse. This is why, when the manager shows up and starts making decisions, the decisions are often followed without question. The team is happy, they’re thinking, “Whew, ok, good — someone is driving us out of this mess.”

The larger question is — where’d the mess come from?

There are two standing goals when managing work that is in Crisis. Goal #1: Make sure the sky doesn’t fall. Goal #2: Figure out how to prevent future sky falling situations. It’s a balance. You can’t truly perform a post-mortem while holding the sky up, but, then again, you can’t truly remember what it’s like to hold the sky up a month after it happens.

When I’m standing in the middle of a Crisis, I’m doing two things at the same time. First, I’m frantically trying to fix the issue by any means possible. I’m also carefully looking to identify the root cause of the Crisis. This is information that vanishes in the joy of no longer being screwed once the Crisis has passed. Sure, we’ll still have a debrief once everyone’s caught their breath, but I’m going to learn more about what actually happened by asking questions at 10pm on a Saturday night after two weeks of not having a day off.

The thing I remind myself of throughout the Crisis is: if I’m responsible for resolving this Crisis, there’s a good chance I’m just as responsible for its creation. I don’t want to be grilling anyone at 10pm on Saturday. I want the Crisis to never occur again, which means being Creative.

The Creative

The panic junkie is the person who is addicted to Crisis and, in the absence of it, will manufacture drama in order to create additional Crisis. Their intent was originally good; they wanted to get stuff done quickly and discovered that the umbrella of a Crisis removed traditional organizational roadblocks. Problem is, they’ve becoming addicted to the power and momentum granted to them by driving the crisis. As soon as the current Crisis appears to have passed, they deflate, thinking, “Blah, back to the normal,” and immediately start looking for another Crisis. If they don’t find one, they create it.

I was one of these people and burned a lot of calories getting a lot done, but management by Crisis is a losing strategy. You become a corporate arsonist — burning through people and process in your apparent endless hurry, but you aren’t actually building anything.

There’s always a Crisis in progress. It’s a statistical fact that in any decent-sized group of people there is one person who needs help with some part of a Crisis. Get used to it. The question I ask myself each morning as I stare at the day’s selection of Crises is: “Am I going to play in the Crisis or the Creative?”

I’m not talking about being Creative about solving a Crisis such that it never occurs again, I’m talking about work that is purely Creative — where you’re actively improving or building a thing. It’s writing that piece of code that nobody but you wants; it’s spending two hours recruiting that guy you’re never going to get; it’s standing in the design room with a variety of dry erase markers and just filling that whiteboard with random.

I’m not talking about impossible tasks; I’m talking about Creative ones. I’m talking about inspired investments in an uncertain future. These are often hard tasks to measure, which means they are equally hard to justify to those sitting around you, but they occasionally, infrequently hit. You get the guy. You find the idea. You build something new.

Given the constant presence of Crisis and things to do, the act of choosing to devote part of your time to a purely Creative activity can be rough, but if you’re going to grow, there have got to be times where you let things go further to hell in the now because you’re choosing to invest in the Creative for the future.

That’s right. You are going to actively ignore a burning Crisis so that you can hide in the design room and doodle on a whiteboard. The panic junkies are going to be pissed. They’re going to walk by, laptops in hand, and wonder, “Why the hell isn’t he all over the Crisis? Doesn’t he know it’s, ya’know, A CRISIS?”

Yes, it’s a risky move. Yes, there are crises that can’t be ignored. Yes, if you piss off the wrong panic junkie, you’re going to hear about it — quickly — but the bigger risk is a panic-filled career reacting to disasters versus one where you’re recognized for what you’ve built versus what you’ve fixed.

A Personal Model

The Crisis and the Creative isn’t a productivity system, it’s an identification system — it’s your personal view of your world and, for me, it’s a set of reminders. First, I choose how I invest my time. Second, that a Crisis is an opportunity not only to save the day, but to make certain that future days never see this Crisis again by Creatively moving something into the predictable Middle.

And I want more Middle.

The more Middle, the happier I am because that’s more time for the edges and undiscovered opportunity always hides at the edges.

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6 Responses

  1. Good post. Sounds a lot like Covey’s four quadrants mapping importance and urgency.

  2. As I am approaching ten years of IT engineering team management, I identify more with this model than I would have just a few years ago. Years ago I would be going from crisis to crisis in a vein attempt to try and put out smoldering fires myself. It is exhausting fighting all those fires. In hindsight … there will always be smoldering fires. I now put more thought into which fires to focus on myself with those precious few hours one has in a given day and which to coax team members to try and put out themselves.

    A bit more of a tactical view of this scenario as it pertains to production outages can be found in this article here:

  3. At least theres no mention of "duct tape".

  4. I had a boss who was a panic junkie (I called him a crisis generating unit at the time) who used to let stuff go until it became a crisis and then leap in to save the world.

    And repeat.

    Just as you described.

    After working with him for a while I started locking down every opportunity for him to create a crisis. I’d ambush him to pull vital info out of him. I brought in procedures to give structure. I held meetings where I made it clear who was responsible for what so he couldn’t let things slide.

    But no matter what, he always found another way to create a crisis. Eventually he got so desperate that he fired someone just so something would happen.

    Any advice about how to deal with shutting down or alleviating the effects of a panic junkie?

  5. Brooks Moses 7 years ago

    So, I read this article, and then I went off on vacation, and on the way back had occasion to read the October edition of Hawaiian Airlines in-flight magazine, in which they had an article from the CEO about the recent history of the company. One of the key points that I remember from the article was his point that the airline industry was always in crisis, and so it was important to keep moving the company forward even in the midst of crisis. In his example, it was continuing to add new routes and buy new planes even in the midst of the last year, but it seems like very much the same story you’re telling. I thought the synchronicity was pretty interesting.

    (Incidentally, looks like the article will be online at at some point, but isn’t up yet.)

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