Bad things happen, and sometimes crises are unavoidable. I've spent time as an automotive engineer, a software engineer, a CTO and a startup founder, so I've had lots of opportunities to deal with crises. I've discovered that crisis management is a learnable and teachable skill, and I'd like to share my crisis management philosophy and procedure with you.
In my daily life I deal mostly with software/product/business crises. But I'm writing this article the morning after my wife hit her head really hard and started bleeding profusely (she's ok!), so I'll be demonstrating this general technique's applicability to both software and personal injury crises.
This approach is a general crisis management technique. Its philosophy is centered around dealing with your own mental state during a crisis, and developing the understanding of which mental faculties you have while under duress or in periods of high stress.
In teaching this technique to others I've found that the "a-ha!" moment is my treatment of the concepts of duress and intuition. Loosely defined, I use "duress" to mean "high stress, high stakes, high urgency, threatening situation", and "intuition" to mean "the ability to use both sides of the brain in parallel to tap into previous experiences and solve problems semi-subconsciously".
A caveat: this is not medical advice. If in doubt, call 911. They're the experts, not you. But keep in mind that facial and scalp injuries can cause a lot of bleeding, and often the bark is much much worse than the bite.
Step 1: Determine if you're under duress.
Most crises lead to a state of duress. I've found it important to spend a second or five at the beginning of a crisis to determine whether I'm under duress or not. Ask yourself the following questions: am I stressed or panicked? Do I feel the pressure of time viscerally? Is my heart rate elevated? Does this feel high-stakes?
This is an important step in crisis management because your brain chemistry changes when you're in a state of panic or duress. Adrenaline and cortisol enter your system, and while they can help your physical response time to stimuli, they hinder your creative problem solving skills, and most importantly, they hinder your intuition. The stress hormones refocus your body and mind towards dealing with lower-level, evolutionary, animal brain issues (fight or flight), and so you lose some higher level function, in particular the ability to multitask and work in parallel.
Recognizing that your intuition is no longer useful is the tentpole of my crisis management technique. Put another way: most crises are unintuitive. If the problem were intuitive, it probably would not have become a full-blown crisis in the first place! Or at very least you'd know what the solution is early on and wouldn't need to fall into crisis management mode.
If you recognize that you're under duress, you must also recognize that you can't trust your intuition. Relying on your intuition in these cases typically leads to paralysis, which compounds the duress issue. I've seen engineers in a state of duress just sort of "poke" at the problem, looking at the same pieces over and over again, hoping that the lightbulb will light up, and it rarely does. They're trying to use their everyday intuition--which is excellent and typically correct in a relaxed setting--in an unintuitive, high stress situation. It rarely works.
If intuition fails, you must fall back to procedure. Spend only a few seconds on this step. All you need to do is say to yourself "I'm under duress, let me switch to methodical procedure."
Step 2: Collect Information
Problem solving under duress, without the help of your intuition and creative skills, is different from solving problems in a relaxed state. In a relaxed state you'll often work in parallel to collect information while simultaneously forming hypotheses or conclusions. Don't try to do this in a crisis.
Instead, collect information as quickly and calmly as you can. Don't try to process the information yet; you don't have the mental bandwidth. Serialize and linearize the problem, don't parallelize it.
Collect the most valuable information you can as quickly as you can before moving on to step three. If you're a software engineer and your site is down, collect information like: what are the actual symptoms? Is the whole site down or is it just one page? What are the environmental factors? What are the exact error messages? What is the hierarchy of the application? Where are the relevant files?
If you're treating a friend or loved one that has just been injured, ask yourself: what are the patient's symptoms? What are their behaviors? Where is the injury? Did they lose consciousness? Are they losing blood? Are they speaking in coherent sentences? Are they in shock? Are they behaving congruently with their personality?
It'll be easier for you to solve the problem once you have a well-rounded factual picture of the situation, and batching your information collection up-front will save precious time. Anecdotally, I've found that your short term memory recall is not hindered by a state of duress, however the stress hormone cortisol seems to inhibit recall of older memories, which is a possible explanation for the loss of intuition. It may be tempting to try to solve the problem while collecting information, but don't. Doing so increases the risk that you'll follow an unnecessary rabbit hole and waste time. Get the information first. Parse it next.
Spend "a few minutes" on this step. In software applications this can take ten minutes, but if you're dealing with a injured friend you want to do this as quickly as possible, within two or three minutes.
Step 3: Identify and fix the single most urgent issue.
Once you've collected your information, switch into critical thinking and problem solving mode. You still have this mode of thinking available to you; what's gone is not your problem solving ability but rather your ability to multitask and your ability to solve issues intuitively.
Unintuitive crises normally involve multiple issues all at once, and not all issues are created equal. Identify the single most urgent issue--the issue that is causing your state of duress--and fix that first. If you fix the cause of your duress early on, you'll buy yourself mental clarity and bandwidth to solve the problem more completely in the next steps.
If you're dealing with a crashed website, and your information gathering has determined that a single widget on the page caused a cascading failure, remove that widget first and bring the page back up without it, restoring the basic functionality and silencing the alerts. There's still the problem of reduced functionality and a broken widget, but you'll fix those issues later when you're no longer under duress.
If you're dealing with a friend or loved one that just got hit in the head and is bleeding but is still conscious and coherent, the thing that's causing the most duress is not knowing how urgent the problem is: "there's a lot of bleeding and I don't know how bad the wound is; is this an ER situation, do they need stitches, or does it look worse than it is because there's a lot of blood and it's painful?". There are still other issues like "where's the closest emergency room", "does my friend have a concussion or other traumatic brain injury", and "is there a skull fracture". Solve the bleeding first. Grab a towel and apply pressure for a couple of minutes. If the bleeding stops on its own, you've just relieved your state of duress and can now start thinking about the other issues. (If there's loss of consciousness, slurred speech, spasms, etc, call 911 -- the above scenario applies to a conscious and speaking person).
Spend around 10 minutes on this step. If you fix the most urgent issue first, by definition, the next issue is less time sensitive than the first. As your issues get less time sensitive, your state of duress decreases.
Step 4: Repeat the procedure for the next issue(s).
After fixing the most urgent issue, revisit step one and determine whether you're still under duress or if you've calmed down. If you're calm and you no longer feel any urgency or time sensitivity, continue working the problem with your normal set of problem solving skills, and allow intuition to come back into your thinking.
Odds are, however, you're still in an elevated state of excitement. If so, go back to step two and collect information again, targeting the next most urgent issue. Then move on to step three and solve that issue. Once that's solved, hit step four and repeat the loop until the urgency has subsided.
As the urgency of each subsequent problem decreases, you can afford more time to solve each one. In our software example, you're now afforded more time and more mental capacity to investigate fix the root cause of the problem, and once that's done you'll have time and clarity to deal with any fallout from the crisis. You can now spend an hour on fixing your broken widget.
In the personal injury example, this is the time to inspect the wound more closely, determine whether or not you need to go to the ER, pull up directions to the closest urgent care center, check WebMD for warning signs you may not have known about, and determine your course of action.
If the patient's bleeding has stopped and they're coherent, the next most urgent issue is determining whether you need to go to the ER. Because you addressed the most urgent issue first (profuse bleeding), you now have some more time that you can use to: ask them questions about their day to test memory and recall, take a closer look at the wound to see what further treatment it might need (again, if in doubt, call 911 or go to the ER), and you can spend some time comforting your injured friend while observing them. Maybe the wound is just a cut that bled a lot and doesn't warrant an ER trip. With that problem solved, you can spend some time cleaning and dressing the injury. Or maybe you'll notice slurred speech and forgetfulness once the shock has worn off. In either case you can spend some time on this (ie, observe for 30-60 minutes) now that the bleeding is stemmed and taken care of, and you'll have the wherewithal and calmness to drive safely to the hospital.
Step 5: Follow-up
Once the urgency and sense of duress is gone, allow yourself to go back to your normal problem solving mode. Figure out your plan for the next 3 hours, 12 hours, 24 hours, and 48 hours.
In the software case, plan out the fixes, patches, procedures and communication you'll need to take care of in those time periods. In the injury case, if you didn't go to the hospital, plan out observation, clean-up, follow-up, and treatment (Tylenol and bandages) for those time periods. For instance, if the injury happened at night, let your friend go to sleep but plan to wake them up and have a short conversation to check for mental acuity in 3 hours. Then follow up on making sure there are no other warning signs and that the situation is improving in 12, 24, and 48 hours, otherwise go to the hospital.
Don't avoid crises; learn to deal with them.
This stuff happens. Crisis prevention is obviously important and the best-case scenario. It's always good to avoid high risk behaviors. But unintuitive problems can happen no matter how thorough your preparation is. My advice is to get good at both sides: be good at preventing problems before they happen, but also make sure you're comfortable dealing with urgent unintuitive issues.
The most important takeaway from this article is that intuition is unreliable in a crisis, so you will need a pre-memorized and practiced procedure to fall back on. Using procedure instead of intuition clears up mental bandwidth and reduces stress for the crisis manager.
NASA, for instance, takes the same approach: they rely on preparation and procedure in the most urgent situations, and they've designed and practiced those procedures with the understanding that human intuition is powerful when available but perilous when under duress.
My procedure above isn't the only crisis management procedure out there. It's simply one that I've developed over the years dealing with crises. It has the advantage of being simple, generalizable, and easy to recall and implement when under high stress: remind yourself that your intuition is unreliable, collect information without interpretation, then interpret information with the goal of removing the biggest stressor as quickly as possible.
If you don't have your own crisis management procedure that works for you, feel free to use the one above. I've taught it to all my engineers over the years and can anecdotally report that it works for everyone I've taught it to, greatly improves time to resolution, and reduces the stress of crises.
If you do already have a procedure you use, my advice is to simply reflect on how your procedure treats the concept of intuition, and perhaps introduce the concepts of duress and loss of intuition into your model. I'd also love to hear about your crisis management techniques in the comments below.