In an instant, IT leaders can be handed large, disruptive new challenges. Never has this been more true than at this moment.

Throughout my career, like many of you, I’ve been pulled into urgent situations - crises that needed to be quickly addressed and resolved. In many of these cases, I am asked (or told) by my superiors to ‘make it happen’. Figure out how to fix it, and get it done.

Of course, in recent weeks, and for many more to come, the COVID-19 coronavirus will create a plethora of new, never-before-seen crises that will test our leadership abilities.

I have developed a list of tips that I find myself consulting every time I am thrust into an unexpected crisis, and told to make it happen. At this particular moment in time, I felt it appropriate to share.

Here are my five tips for solving big problems.

1. Tap your brain trust.

Making it happen does not necessarily mean that you have to do it all yourself, or come up with all the answers. In most cases, I am aware that I do not possess all the skills required to solve the issue I have just been saddled with. What I do have in my back pocket, however, is a trusted set of experts and research techniques that I can lean on for guidance. Before I start solving, my approach is to tap into the insight from my external experts and my online research to consider the options available to me. I’ve often helped others address their tough situations and I can now trust them to give me their unbiased advice and offer a glimpse of how the issue could be resolved.  

2. Seek out the facts and create a timeline.

Let’s be honest, you will never have the complete set of facts at the start of a problem-solving project. In some cases, the facts are not fully evident until after the issue is resolved. My strategy is to go back and recreate the exact timeline, the cause, the effect, and identify every person and piece of IT and operations that were involved in the problem scenario. Immediately start talking to the key actors, and create a timeline and set of events. Chart it out by the day, or even the hour. Most likely, the actors in your issue will only have their portion of the story to offer. Step back, compile the stories and build a timeline of the issue from the beginning up to its current state. Without fail, this fact-finding strategy has always led to important discoveries and new questions that need to be answered before the solution can be found.

3. Take control.

As soon as you can, you must take charge and get in front of the issue. Immediately make it known that you have been given this responsibility and will be leading the charge towards a resolution. Set up a brief call or meeting with key individuals for 15-30 minutes. Before the meeting, create a clear agenda that defines the issue, describes the next steps that are known, and exactly how you will be communicating status updates and action plans going forward. Let everyone know how they can reach you, and reiterate multiple times that this issue is your top priority. The point here is take control early, make people know that there is one person to go to and that, under your leadership, a plan is taking shape. You also want to instill in them a sense of urgency and let them know that you will be depending on them for their insight and help moving forward. Be up front and admit that you will need their help and that they are part of the solution. In this first meeting, do not try to rehash everything that has happened to-date. Get people looking forward, and create the new energy and focus that will be needed to ‘make it happen’.

4. Set the plan.

Most of the time, when I am dropped into a problem situation and told to make it happen, I observe a total lack of planning. Simply put, without a plan there is no direction, so the issue can sometimes spiral into bigger issues or into a new set of problems. Use tip #2 (Seek out the facts) tip #3 (Take control) above to take the initiative to create a plan. It does not need to be perfect at first. I think it is wise to call it a “draft” plan until you and the rest of the experts you have surrounded yourself with consider it to be a strong enough. Till then, edit and adjust it as needed. The plan should spell out a rough timeline of what you think it will take to make it happen. Be conservative, open and honest about time estimates, and add in contingencies so that you can manage people’s expectations. It is better to overstate the time and resources needed and clarify them over time. After the crisis has ended, few will remember the dates; they will only remember that you took firm control, made a plan and solved the problem. Keep your focus on ‘making it happen’!

5. Communicate (or someone else will).

One of my favorite mentors used to say, “Either you tell the story, or someone else will’. I have kept this in mind and used it on every high stakes project. When you’ve been given the ‘make it happen’ edict, most likely the current information is either inaccurate, or it has not been communicated at all.  One technique that works for me is to create a simple dashboard of no more than five items to quickly communicate status. Use red, yellow and green color codes to drive the focus. When you use red or yellow, make sure to include a few recommendations or the actions you are taking to move it to green. This and other communications will drive the teamwork and actions needed to keep the focus on achieving a resolution. Make sure to communicate on a regular cadence. My advice is to judiciously use the ‘as-of-date’ approach and time the distribution of information to suit your team and your organization. This simple technique will save you hours of unnecessary dialog and allow you to keep your focus.

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