Ok, so if you watch the Simpsons, you would’ve already kinda realised what were about to talk about. If not, why haven’t you been watching the Simpsons?
We face all sorts challenges in life. Some big, some small. Most people are ok with the small stuff. You miss the bus, you can’t find where you left your glasses (they’re actually sitting on your head), you forget to pick up your children from school…, you leave them in the car at the Casino… It’s annoying but manageable and everyone gets over it, eventually.
However, what happens when that small challenge turns into a real crisis? How well equipped are we and those around us to deal with these sorts of situations? For most people, it’s impossible. If something doesn’t go to plan, everything falls apart. However, for those who can keep a calm demeanour, whatever the situation might be, they’re able to see a way through the crisis.
When everything was falling apart for Homer in one episode of the Simpsons, he’s saying how hopeless everything is. However, Lisa jumps in to say that the Chinese word for crisis and opportunity is the same. To which Homer replies, ‘Crisitunity!’
Whilst crises are never a good time, they are what often sparks innovation and prompt us to rethinking what we’ve been doing and make changes to improve the situation. Essentially, we want the crisis to stop and we want to return to normal operations and daily life again. This however, could mean that daily life is not quite the same, but has changed for the better. The only failure in a crisis is to do nothing and learn nothing from it. If that’s the case, you’re doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over and over again until you’re ultimately rewarded for your efforts with a Darwin Award.
To be able to see the opportunity in a crisis, you do need some lateral thinking skills and have an openness and willingness to adapt. Too many people are so comfortable in the way they’ve always done something, they’re unable to cope with the rapid and fluid thinking needed to bring a crisis back from the brink and turn it into a wonderful opportunity.
Recently, I was running a residential program and we had two crises in two days. Firstly, we ran out of water. I discovered this fact late at night when I went to have a shower and the shower head angrily spat air at me, so I tried the tap, which did the same. “Hmmm, that can’t be good,” I thought at the time, but not much I could do at that hour. The bore from which we’d been getting our water for years ran dry. This was not surprising, given how little rain and residual ground water there had been for the past few years. Luckily, we had a 100,000 litre water tank, so that was an easy fix. Call the water people and get them to deliver lots of water. Done! Crisis averted, back to normal operations. It’s amazing how little appreciation we have for essential services until they’re gone.
The second one however, was a bit more of a challenge. When you’re running a residential program with 60-80 teenagers and adults living on site, you generate a lot of washing. For years we had sent all of our piles of dirty laundry off site and a couple of days later it magically reappeared clean, ironed and folded neatly. However, this year was slightly different. We were all ready and prepared for doing exactly the same thing, but with one problem. The first weekend of the program, the town laundry burnt to the ground. Now we suddenly had a mountain of dirty clothes and no magical fairies to come and take it away. With a nine weeks’ program ahead of us and being in a rural town with no other laundry, this was a major problem…
The first thing was to let everyone know. This is the easy part. The next step, was to think about how we could do something about it. We had 65 people, a commercial kitchen and 4 washing machines and 3 dryers. Whilst this might be ok with adults, with teenagers who have never washed a single item of clothing before in their lives, this becomes a problem. The first step was to get us over the first hurdle. We needed some clean clothes and we needed them quickly. One machine and dryer was out for kitchen use only, leaving us with 3 and 2 respectively to take down Mount Washmore!
Rather than think it was all too hard and try to find another laundry, the clear way forward was to create a laundry roster, show the students how to wash their clothes and let them learn from the experience. We worked with the students on the first day to make sure they had clean essentials (underwear and other inner layers). The outer layers such as jackets, could just weather the storm of daily use for a bit longer. With a few people predicting disastrous visions of 50 disheveled children walking around looking as if they’d been on an epic journey with a band of hobbits, it didn’t turn out that way at all. It wasn’t exactly clean, neatly pressed clothes either, but a happy medium in between.
With a little more time and seeing a few holes in our original plan, we updated and amended our systems and instructions and before too long, the weekly washing became just another normal part of everyone’s week. Students somehow worked out that you can’t put dripping wet clothes in a dryer and others worked out that you don’t put new red and blue clothes in with your whites. However, without the laundry burning down, which forced our hand to adapt quickly, we wouldn’t have changed what we’d been doing for the past 20 years and turn it into a learning opportunity.
If I were to have proposed that we stop sending our laundry to the magic fairies to do and instead said that we should get the students to do it themselves, I’m quietly confident that this would have been rejected and I would have been told that it wouldn’t work. Yet being forced into a situation where we had no other option than to make it work, meant that from this crisis, emerged a great learning opportunity not only for now, but for the whole program into the future.
When you’re next faced with a crisis, what are you going to do? Will you put your head in your hands and cry, “I’m Done! This is not my job!” or are you going to look at the problem laterally and find a way to make the most of the crisitunity at hand?