Shit happens. It’s unavoidable. The real magic happens when and how we respond. Read more...
There are two types of people in the world: Panickers, and Zen Masters.
The Panicker becomes hysteric, and recklessly sprints toward the disaster with their head down in an attempt to solve the problem immediately using brute force. This usually turns a disaster into a catastrophe, and ultimately produces a vicious cycle of ever-increasing proportions.
The Zen Master does the exact opposite: they stop. The Panickers are shocked and panic even more. They think the Zen Master is paralyzed, but that’s not the case. The Master is cold as ice, running models in their head, trying to really grok the situation and why it happened. Time is going by, and people are still freaking out. But the Zen Master is weighing all the available options, looking at the issue from many perspectives. Then, when everyone thinks the sky is about to rain down fireballs, the Zen Master calmly decides to act in order to resolve the issue in the most efficient and permanent way possible.
How Two Chefs Respond to Crisis
It’s autumn 2004, on a crisp Saturday night at 8pm. I’m the sous-chef in a small, exclusive French restaurant in Toronto. This isn’t amateur hour here, this is the real deal. The open kitchen is tight quarters, fitting only two people. Our uniforms are clean, the mark of a professional. Every tool is in its place so we can access them instinctively. I’ve been prepping with the Chef since 2pm, and we’re pretty well set to handle the rush. This kitchen is a well-oiled machine, and there’s no room for disorganization.
We’ve had a few tables up until then, a nice little warm up for us to get loose. It should be obvious what happens next: twelve tables arrive and are seated within fifteen minutes of each other. The volume of the restaurant picks up a few notches. Glasses are being filled with nice wine, and laughter fills the room.
I’m licking my chops and getting psyched. Finally, the tickets come flying in, and I’m seriously feeling the flow. We’re calling out orders and working hand in hand to get our first round of appetizers out. We’ve sent out apps to about eight tables and everything is perfect. The plates from the first table come back, so we start sending out the mains. More tables are being seated, and we have about a fifteen minute backlog. It’s all good though, because everyone’s having a great time.
Then disaster strikes. I forget about the mashed potatoes I put on the stove to heat up for the mains we’re about to send out. It’s completely burned and I have to start over. All of a sudden, the well-oiled machine starts falling apart. The meat in the oven is going to overcook, and we’re working on plates for about six tables at a time. That means the timing for about twenty-four entrees just got put in jeopardy. This is a huge mess. The disaster compounds - we sold a lot of salad and we’ve run out of lettuce. That means more prep time. I have half a salad ready to go out.
Here’s how two chef’s I worked for at different times handled the situation:
Tim is the Panicker. He’s a shade over 6 foot 4, had blond hair, and seldom shaves his beard. Sometimes he shows up for work still wearing the chef’s uniform he left in the day before, claiming he hasn’t slept and has just returned from a wild party. When a disaster like the one I described strikes, Tim starts doing his famous tick - he starts rocking back and forth on his heels.
I hate disappointing Tim because he’s a Panicker, but I have to break the news to him, and I see that scary look in his eyes. Now he’s yelling at me while he starts rocking on his heels, back and forth, back and forth. Tim is yelling at me because of what I did wrong, and how this is going to ruin the night. “These people will NEVER come back. We are BETTER than this.” He picks up my half-plated dishes and literally throws them in the sink from four feet away. Patrons look up. I tell myself I’m quitting as soon as the night’s over. He shoves me out of the way, grabs a saucepan, and starts a new batch of mashed potatoes himself. I’m humiliated, and I wait for him to summon me back to my station.
Shawn is the Zen Master. He’s one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met. He has a daughter and a wife. He loves comic books and science fiction. He’s always experimenting in the kitchen and constantly trying to improve his technique. I’m not afraid to tell Shawn about the disaster, in fact I tell him a few minutes before I tell Tim (I was trying a last minute fix even though I knew it was pointless) because I trust Shawn. He trusts me too.
When I tell Shawn what happened, the guy actually smiles and calmly stops the entire system. I can’t believe it. “Shawn, these people are going to walk out.” “It’s okay man,” he says, “Screw em. They might freak out, but we have to fix this situation, and us freaking out isn’t going to get us there.” He stands directly in front of me, without rocking his heels, and looks me dead in the eye. “Calm down now Max, right now, and focus.” I can’t hear the noise of the room any more. I can feel my mind working again.
My heart returns into my chest. Shawn’s not freaking out. No dishes have been broken, and no feelings have been hurt. But we still have a problem and the next part is key. “What is the next step you need to do to get this thing moving again? Talk it out with me.” “Well,” I reply, “I need to restock on lettuce, then start the mash on table 4 again, and then I should be able to get back into it if you can hold off on the meat for about ten minutes.”
“Okay man, let’s do it, we’re in this together.”
Crisis is unavoidable and out of our control. What is under our control is how we deal with crisis when it strikes.
The next time we release buggy code into production, or seriously mismanage a client’s expectation, or realize we might miss payroll, we should try to resist the urge to react immediately. We should instead do the following:
- Observe the crisis and take in as much information as possible.
- Orient yourself by understanding the root cause of the crisis and brainstorm all the possible solutions.
- From all the possible solutions, decide on the one that will resolve your crisis in the fastest and most efficient way possible.
You can read more about the OODA loop if you want to.
And most importantly, we should remember that it is in times of crisis that we absolutely depend on being cold, calculating, and at peace with our purpose in life.