The five articles in this series have a single purpose: share small outlines of the approach I used in various consulting and service management activities.
This blog is also a “draft” for other publications, and therefore I decided to share also methodology segments, developed through activities.
Five activities, each activity with a 10-points “plan outline”, followed by a discussion on how that could be supported by a specific job position (that I either observed or helped to create).
The five activities are:
- crisis (resolution)
- contract (negotiation)
- confidentiality (monitoring)
- service (management)
- project (management)
“Crisis” could be a relative definition or have a substantial degree of objectivity.
Generally, I was called to intervene to solve a crisis I had already an active business relationships (i.e. I was working on projects or activities), and few times I was explicitly paid as a negotiator (i.e. a commission).
Therefore, I had two points: solve the situation, and do it as fast as possible- few pay a mediator per se.
As for crisis management- first, I had to identify an agreed solution, then, if asked to help manage its implementation, it became a kind of project or mini-programme- with no staff, no computers, just relationship and goals and measuring of the achievement of goals, coordinating mini-projects or activities if needed.
Sometimes, including selecting new suppliers or involving third parties for activities such as audits or reviews.
Usually, my first request was to decide on which side I was on- asking to both parties who was going to pay my time.
It is a matter of transparency: once I know if I am an in-between, or helping one of the parties, this does not affect the quality of the work, or the fairness of the solution that I have to find, if the crisis involves a long-term activity.
But it influences that second role that often is involved- a “devil’s advocate”.
On short-term business crises, e.g. when a negotiation did not proceed as planned, or one of the two parties did not hold up to their side of a deal, I explicitly asked to be on one of the two sides.
A basic rule-of-thumb that I followed: I declined the invitation to be again a mediator or negotiator between two parties if they reneged the deal that we had agreed to before.
Why? Because, also if you ignore it, the risk is that one or both the parties will stop providing you information that could be useful to solve the crisis, assuming that they gave you everything before- you become part of the problem.
A curious issue: also when I was a negotiator paid by one of the two parties, I had often to have separate meetings with each one of the parties involved, as I was also acting as a kind of “sounding board” to let them get off steam- a “confessor”.
And what about multi-party crisis management?
It depends- but, to keep it simple, the 10 points in the outline will focus on the approach for a 2-party crisis management (albeit I had cases where the one creating the crisis was a third party, that had to be removed before we could focus on finding a solution).
As my experience was mainly in business- each crisis resolution and crisis management had a financial side, but that was managed as a quick “contract negotiation” (see the next article).
The most complex case? A single phone call that generated crisis management and educational activities lasting immediately for few weeks/months, and then become part of the preliminary training of new staff members and the service management approach.
- listen before you talk: take mental note of both what is said, and how is said, as this could be useful in identifying the real critical issue
- identify the target what is said is not necessarily what you need to focus on- some underlining factor might have generated the crisis; without removing the underlining factor, you will be back in crisis-mode with even more stress- and less credibility as a mediator or negotiator (see above- in this case, find another mediator or negotiator)
- collect the current status this is better done partially as a joint effort, partially separately, as the perception of reality is part of the crisis- and trying to generate a consensus on the “casus belli” immediately is not necessarily the best way to progress
- identify the potential common ground frankly, I never found a crisis where there was 100% disagreement; I am not the first (and I will not be the last) to say that it is better to partition the crisis into its components, and set immediately aside what both agree on
- structure the differences it is not just “what” is different, but also “how”- and, as a mediator, I usually rephrase every point from each perspective, to agree individually with each party in front of the other on its own perspective, and then rephrase again to find a joint definition of the disagreement
- highlight the priorities in business is quite easy: when a customer threatened a lawsuit that would have wrecked the company, getting damages wasn’t the priority- the priority was avoid losing the ISO9000 certification
- identify the target and evolution plan in project management you can evolve the plan with a certain degree of latitude; when identifying the solution to a crisis, you need first to identify some points that need to be used both as a factual and as a communication reference- any change, for whatever reason, would scuttle the deal- the process matters as much as the result
- prepare the first actions doing an “all-or-nothing” crisis solution is a reckless choice; pick and choose the first actions to both deliver results and re-build the level of trust needed to avoid a recurrence of the crisis- also if this will be the last time that you work together
- line up the first results if a project manager’s job is 90% communication, in crisis resolution and the ensuing crisis management it is 99.99%; use the communication to build, if and where possible, the mutual progression toward (re)building a working relationship
- relaunch the relationship crisis resolution in business is a wonderful marketing opportunity: more than once, the value of the crisis that I helped to solve was smaller than the business that was generated thereafter
On a project that I cannot disclose, there was a technical crisis: data were simply lost.
Eventually, the issue was technical, but the technical resources from the customer side lacked the required expertise on the management side, and would not accept their choice questioned on the technical side.
The solution was to get back into the loop the buyer, present their case and our case using the approach discussed in the outline (rephrasing, etc), and immediately suggest a cost-free test that could be done in a short time, as a proof of concept, while also giving additional information that could help the technical side to restate their position in case (as we knew that they would) they were to be proved technically wrong (often you can find some contextual information, technical or otherwise, that could have influenced a different choice by your counterpart).
The issue was solving the crisis and moving ahead, not scoring points- as somebody wrote (more or less): help your enemy to get back on his feet after making him bite the ground, and you will win a potential ally.
Often the purchasing function or the buyer are ignored in looking for a solution to a crisis, focusing only on the people who are on the business or technical side.
Instead, their “forest vs trees” view on the company can help to achieve the famous “helicopter view” not from your side, but from somebody that your counterpart more or less trusts.
Again, communication is the key- involving only who was involved (on both sides) in generating the crisis risks shifting the focus on posturing, not on solving.