Why I love a good crisis

Why I love a good crisis
Startup fire fighting

I've recently been doing some soul searching about some of the things I like and dislike the most about my job. In addition to the usual stuff — happy employees, ecstatic customers, winning deals, increasing valuations, congratulatory board meetings, funding rounds and all the usual — there's a form of tricky situation that actually really gets me fired up. The sort of sticky situation where shit hits the fan, things are melting down and there's a chance to turn things around within a tangible time window. I don't mean existential threats, underperforming departments or staff, talent gaps or deals that take several quarters to close — that's just good old fashioned stress and pressure, sleepless nights and worries, calls to advisors and board members and the usual. What I mean is the sort of situation where something blows up and there's 12 hours to make it good; or a contractor that didn't deliver, putting a $2m deal at risk a few weeks from now. In other words, a good old fashioned, alarm bells ringing, fire fight, that makes you question everything you're doing, scramble resources, and try to save the day.

What is it about these fire fights that's so damn motivating? First of all, a quick dive into a foreign language to see if others feel the same. 危机 (trad: 机機), wēijī, means crisis in Chinese. The first character, wēi, comes from the word 危险 wéixiǎn which means dangerous. The second character, jī, comes from the word 机会 jīhuì which means chance or opportunity. So it's pretty clear that their view is the crisis is a dangerous time that offers the the chance to seriously change or redo stuff, on an urgent schedule, and make things better.

I'm under the impression that most normal people can't stand such things happening, but I have to say I rather like it. I'm not alone either, for example the strong companionships and communities that were forged during and after the second world war in Europe are widely documented along with the building of the welfare state. At Yellowbrick, we've not had much going wrong at all, business has been great and the company has been growing incredibly well, leaving things a little mundane. So what is it that happens in these fire fights that I miss so much?

Bringing the team together: Teamwork is at its best in a well-managed crisis. Everyone gets briefed on the mission and they are in no doubt as to its importance. Responsibility is shared. There's no bulls*it, no politics or games. Everyone knows they must do whatever is needed to get things resolved, otherwise we're all in trouble. This grows respect within the group and the cooperative benefits outlast the fire fight.

Allowing situational leadership to thrive: It's a perfect time for people who want to step up to do so. Everyone feels empowered to go as far above and beyond as they need to in order to get the problem solved. Everyone respects who is in charge.

Straightforward, timely communication: In a well-managed crisis, internal and external communication is coordinated, free, frank and smooth. There's no marketing and everyone cuts to the chase.

Happy interrupts: I believe this is dopamine in the brain. Before anyone says anything, we think cell phones are good because every new interruption, +like, message from a friend, new follower or re-share interrupt us with excitement and makes us feel happier. Thus cell phones bring us happiness and we get addicted. When you're managing a fire fight, the rapid progress towards the goal of satisfying it feels way, way better than more likes on social media. The items getting checked off on the regular stand-ups feel great. Staff coming up with brilliant, new and creative ideas or theories is wonderful.

Building trust with customers: Especially in an enterprise business like this one, it's super important for customers to trust 100% that you can fix your shit when it goes wrong. At Yellowbrick, we've suffered from bugs in Intel CPU microcode, issues with commonly used firewalls at customers, bugs in the Linux kernel as well as plenty of issues in our own software. At my previous company, Fusion-io, we even found manufacturing defects in chips. We're proud to be able to fix 100% of issues we find at Yellowbrick. The relationship with customers is at its best when you know that, working together, you can solve absolutely anything. The customers shine, the vendor shines, and we emerge stronger. We always go above and beyond.

Sense of achievement: The rush of crossing the finish line feels great. Getting close and knowing that normality is just around the corner must be like when you're in a long race and can see the finish line in the distance. Not that I've been in such a race and haven't seen a finish line since the jogging track at school but feel it must be similar. Celebrate. You saved the day!

I've thrived so much in these situations that at one point one of our QA managers asked me if I sometimes deliberately manufacture problems that lead to fire fights solely so I can enjoy rectifying them. For the record, the answer here is the same thing as I told her, a strong and absolute NO WAY! At work. In my personal life and relationships, though, I'm not so sure. One of my friends recently explained to me how, for him, the best relationships have something in common with video games: If the game is too easy, we lose interest, and if the game is too difficult, we can't be bothered finishing it either. There have to be just enough challenges to keep things interesting and have the player come back for more. Perhaps work is similar and it's entirely possible that outside of work I may have instigated such troubles!

What lessons are there here, if any, apart from my own psychological issues? In a start-up, you've got to have some people who are good at leading and managing through an unplanned crisis and will stop at nothing to succeed. You've got to have sufficient resources (equipment, people, money — I find it a little belittling to refer to all people as 'resources') to be able to get through them. Fire fights come often, especially in the early years, as your start-up is finding product/market fit, getting new requirements, dealing with human error or the inevitable nasty bugs. Treat these crises as great opportunities to bring your team together, allow leadership to thrive, improve communication, build trust with your customers and enjoy the sense of achievement that comes with success!