Sunday, 20 January 2013

Operations File: Resolving calamities

Ever had one of those days, weeks or years when everything that could go wrong seems to be seizing the opportunity to do so? The test of whether or not a manager is worth their lofty title lies partly in ensuring that disasters don't strike and partly in how they cope if, despite the best of plans all hell breaks loose. To test someone's ability to prioritise you might want to try the exercise below. I was given a scenario similar to to this in an interview and was successful in securing the job, but as I believe in empowering others and not spoon feeding them as if they are incapable of rational thought, I'll leave you to decide how you would answer and what the 'correct' priority is. 

A priorities test

It is 8.30 am and you are in charge of a business venue which has several rooms hired out to a multitude of companies for all manner of activities including meetings, a conference and today you have a regular booking for a group of people with learning difficulties who are there to attend noisy interactive music and drama sessions. They are vital to the organisation's future as their presence helps win you grant funding but there have been complaints about the noise they make. You also have VIPs from a blue chip company visiting who you wish to secure regular bookings from. The contract could be very lucrative. 

On arrival you see that there is abusive graffiti sprayed on the main entrance by some local oiks the night before that needs specialist treatment to remove, staff are already trying their best but are fighting a losing battle. You go inside and you are told the following: The cafe (used by all) has not received the food order which is necessary to provide the VIPs with their buffet lunch and the ovens are not working. Your deputy who you have put in charge of other hires for the day is in hospital as they had a serious accident at home. You are also missing two catering staff and the maintenance manager. There is a burst water pipe and the resulting flood has damaged the cookers and the room set aside for the VIP's buffet lunch. 

An irate customer is demanding that you phone them as soon as you get in and you have to sign off time sheets for your staff and finalise a report for a funding bid and send it off today. You must also remember to collect additional cash from the bank before lunch time service begins in the cafe.

One of the group with learning difficulties is screaming and has locked themselves in the toilets and won't come out and your VIPs are due to arrive in 10 minutes.

In what order and how do you address each of these issues so that there is the minimum of disruption or deviation from the day as you'd planned it? And no, you don't have others to pass the buck to - you have to call the shots! With a sparkle in my eyes, my initial reaction in that interview was "First, I would take a deep breath and count to ten..."

Note I haven't stipulated how many staff you have at your command nor how big the venue is, nor how many hires or customers you have in that day. To make it simple, let's suppose you have 30 staff for the day covering all of your departments and the footfall of booked people is 150 during the course of the day. You have 2 large conference rooms, one of which is booked for the VIPs (60 people) the other for the Learning Difficulties group (15 people) and these rooms are next to each other. You also have another eight smaller rooms set up for other business meeting hires for today, only six of which are in use this morning. 

Finding the solutions

While some will find this catalogue of disasters all too familiar in reality, others will find this exercise daunting if they've never had such a challenge thrown at them before... although in all honesty that is not quite true. Nearly all of us have some experience of bad days when everything comes crashing down on us out of the blue in our personal lives. How we respond is often in a reactive way, jumping from one emergency to another as they arise, often ditching something we started to resolve in order to react to the newest calamity.

In the work environment such days need to be handled in a proactive manner, not a reactive one. It is vital to regain control if it's lost asap to avoid a meltdown. It is important as a starting point to note what is still in place as you may need to draw upon it. Note what you should already be in place - e.g. an agreement about what noise levels should be kept to as well as overall contingency plans!To paraphrase a line in the film 'Apollo 13', "Let's look at this from a point of view of status. What have we got that's good?"

As that real life incident demonstrates, we can and are resourceful when we have to be, often finding solutions from what little is still operational. Another favourite line from that film for me is "Let's work the problem. Let's not make things worse by guessing." It's why I think of Gene Kranz as the hero of the Apollo 13 incident as without his leadership things might have turned into the disaster that most expected. So what did he do to resolve things - what do we all need to do when confronted with calamities? Stay calm and focused and...

Hints: First list the problems to overcome, then list what is still working. Next identify which key questions you need to ask. Also identify who is best suited to which task to help resolve things, but always, always keep your original goals in focus. To me, in this fictitious scenario it means ensuring that the customers' requirements need come first. Here you have several groups of them as well as a team of staff who are a tad anxious. 

While I haven't quite experienced all of the challenges listed above, I have encountered quite a few of them during my working life. You will find you don't have all the information you need to properly know how to manage those incidents when they arise out of the blue. In this respect they are useful to have for so much can and should be learnt from such experiences.

I found in my interview I had to ask for more details. As this is only an exercise, imagine the other facts you need to come up with your solution. I would recommend drafting your own version related to your own working environment or swapping one calamity for another to see how that would alter your decisions. 

The best solutions are always tailor made and take into account the resources, time factors and budget available. However, if you are not able to prioritise efficiently you could end up escalating the problems faced. Top of the list should always be Health and Safety - is anyone in danger of death, injury or any form or harm? It helps too to think about what your clients and customers expect from you. They are not expecting to wade through water at a conference, but if a flood is not in an area they need have access to (including fire exit routes), then do they need to know about it?

Who needs to know what is also vital for efficiency as you often do not have time to go into lengthy explanations and discussions when disaster strikes. Imagine your are evacuating an aircraft. Tests have proved that asking people individually, leaving them to decide how and when to exit takes time so an authoritative, decisive tone of voice is required with the minimum of information given to avoid panic or delays.

Priorities though, is the subject for my next article where I will share some tricks I have learnt to keep on top of the pressure to avert it becoming stress. Due to new commitments with a new job, I have to review my own priorities with regard to WildeHeads - not wishing to ditch it though, I'll find a way to continue because I want to.

Taking a breath and counting to ten might seem a waste of time, but it is far from it as it provides us with the thinking time we need to stay calm, remain focused and remain in control of all that it is possible to be in control of. If you choose to try this test... good luck! 

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