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Never waste a good crisis

“Never waste a good crisis”.

Attributed to Winston Churchill during World War II, I heard this phrase recently whilst working with The Royal Challengers Bangalore in the Indian Premier League. The 5th biggest league in the world, with revenues north of $70m per team, and your team has yet to win a single match – crisis time indeed – Mr Churchill where are you? Can you help?

In his book, Black Box Thinking, Mathew Syed talks about how people learn from failure – and how equally, they don’t. He cites the difference between the learning-heavy aviation industry vs the learning-light medical industry. He offers that failure should not only be embraced - but a rigorous process employed for using it as a boost for future success.

An issue today is that we are impatient for results – we live in the world of instant gratification. If you take sport, and the fact that it elicits huge emotion and is coupled with ego like bacon to egg, you have a potentially hopeless mix if you are wanting to learn from failure. The irony is that in sport, both players and teams, fail a lot. Even at the very top of his game, the average cricketer will only succeed 30% of the time. Who’d want to be involved in sport?!

Without revealing any inner conversations that took place in Bangalore, I can offer my humble view on what’s required if teams and organisations are truly not to ‘waste a good crisis’.

Acknowledge the truth

In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins recalls that in the Vietnam War, Admiral Jim Stockdale kept captive for 7 years, suggested that only the realists (those that embraced the reality of the situation they were in) would survive. A healthy dose of hope is always important when under pressure for results, but not at the risk of not owning up to the fact that something you are doing is not working, or some deep introspection.

Toss the silver bullet

In a complex system, we are always quick to try and simplify what leads to success and failure (just as may run the risk of doing here ). Whilst this helps people understand and transfer learning, it can also be a set back in using a crisis to grow. There is never one thing, one silver bullet that leads to success or failure, but a combination – often a complex combination. Problems can include misalignment, unhealthy relationships and disconnections – one needs to search for these.

The domino effect

In trying to ‘fix’ things during crisis we can run the risk of aiming too high. Remember there is a reason things are not working. It may be lack of confidence, but there can often be too much attention paid to confidence – it is not something you can just create. Rather identify one small thing that will increase confidence incrementally. Let this act as the start of a building of momentum –like pushing over stacked dominos. If one thing works, the rest will follow at speed.

Prepare to wrestle

Tough discussions, challenges and uncomfortable feelings are likely to rear their heads. There’s not always a Hollywood comeback story on the horizon. As a leader of a struggling team, it’s important to retain your own principles and assuredness. Also to be prepared to set aside your ego and admit you are struggling for ideas or may have made mistakes. Withdrawal or disengagement from the emotion or task is the biggest enemy of not wasting a crisis. Be vulnerable and curious whilst still remaining hopeful and assured – a tricky, but vital balance. Gems can come out of uncertainty.

Ask for help

Help comes in strange guises - often from someone who just asks a different question, or enables a new type of conversation between people.

Crises are terrible, no one likes or wants them. I personally don’t believe in loving failure ( that’s a step too far in my mind), but I do think it needs to be embraced in order to be helpful.

Ps: Churchill is also quoted as having said: “When I was younger I made it a rule never to take strong drink before lunch. It is now my rule never to do so before breakfast.” So if all else fails, you could just pour yourself a stiff one!


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