I’ve done a fair bit of rescue work in my career, where some business or team was on the verge of falling apart–and it was my job to help them glue it all back together.
Most of these rescue projects didn’t start as rescue projects, though. They started as trainings, or a bit of contracting work on some new product that the main team was “too busy” to work on. But soon enough, it became clear that would be a total waste of money; and so we’d often end up going back to the drawing board.
There are a handful smoke tests I use for detecting an unhealthy work environment:
- Poor financial planning, i.e. chasing the current quarter’s billables rather than having a reserve of at least 6 months built up.
- Roadmaps that are 10% complete despite being 50% of the way through the original timeline, but haven’t been modified to reflect the new reality yet.
- A high amount of conflict with outside vendors, clients, and other third parties.
- A high amount of internal conflict (which is harder to spot, because it doesn’t always mean aggressive behavior but can be seen through various forms of non-participation, avoidance, unfulfilled commitments, etc.)
- Or, in company cultures that promote a “happy” workplace, a lot of encouragement that sounded mostly like consolation, transfer of responsibility, wishful thinking, and excuse-making rather than support and celebration of real progress. (These places are THE worst, by the way!)
- A collective delusion about how things will get better “over the hump” — where the hump may be anything from a new investment round, to a new product idea, to a new business partnership, you name it.
- An ongoing state of emergency. The ideal amount of urgent unplanned work (particularly when it’s in response to customer complaints) is 0% — anything over 20% is a warning sign, anything over 50% is a “House on Fire.”
I don’t do rescue work anymore, because it’s immensely draining and painful psychologically, and you need to get the timing exactly right otherwise no matter how hard you try things will still fall apart.
But the key thing that I always did in this sort of project was first to go around and listen to each person involved in a business (and more importantly observe their actions)–developing as much context as I possibly could around their situation.
From there, I would show (with data) exactly what the current state of things were. And then finally, I’d present a plan for the entire business that was so simple that it could fit in one person’s head. Not a perfect plan, not a permanent plan, but a working plan that could be executed on that day.
This is the hidden asset of a business in crisis: If nothing is working, then something that does work, even a little, is worth trying. So you simplify, and you simplify, and you simplify. You focus on a handful of basics: customer service, delivering valuable work, and making money. And you do this small-to-big, almost like paying down a debt snowball.
This starts to create a culture of health and safety again, and a culture of progress. You then need to convince people to pour their whole hearts into the game, and that’s a little harder, because emergency states demoralize everyone. But sometimes when people see even the faintest glimpse of a light at the end of the tunnel, they’re willing to run towards it–at least for a little while.
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Funny enough, most of what I did in my rescue work can be learned from watching the British version of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares. That sounds a little bit silly (especially if you’ve only seen bits and pieces of the U.S. version where it’s cut to show him just yelling all the time), but it’s legit.
If you watch that show, you’ll see the same pattern over and over again.
Simplify the menu radically, teach a handful of things that can be done well, improve the ROI per dish sold or if not that, the consistency and speed at which dishes are produced. Drive up the quality and consistency of customer service. Get to the root of interpersonal issues and shake them out, make it clear that without doing so, it’s the end of the line. Remind people why it is they’re doing what they doing in the first place–what the mission was. Cut out the genuinely toxic people from the equation. Bring in new people who can model good behavior, etc. etc. All of this together is just straight operations tactics, but the key is to apply it all at once with overwhelming speed and crispness of execution.
As I said, timing is critical. Most fires are already burning high by the time you pick up a hose. But sometimes, you get lucky, and you can turn a place around.