Dealing with the Unexpected

November 16, 2010

Planning to Resolve a Problem, Issue or Crisis

When an unexpected event occurs – a problem, an issue or a crisis – you may not always have a ready made contingency plan available to deal with it. However if you follow a standard planning procedure you may increase your chances of a speedy resolution.

When to Use a Task Planning Procedure

When a problem, issue or crisis requiring an urgent response arises – and where a straightforward response isn’t appropriate – you will need to plan. The task to resolve the situation might be given to you by your manager or their manager or it may be one you have identified yourself. The time available to achieve the outcome is limited or is subject to a fixed and imminent deadline. The event is one either not normally or not currently covered by your business contingency plan. However, you need a plan with which to brief and supervise a team – and a plan will also help reassure management and stakeholders that you are in control of the situation and its resolution.

How to Use the Task Planning Procedure

Describing this thought process as a “procedure” might suggest a lengthy process that you may feel you don’t have time for. Remember, even in the most urgent of situations time spent on review, analysis and planning will help ensure a more efficient, effective and flexible response. The time you spend planning depends on the time and information you have available and the scope and scale of the problem. If you only have 10 minutes, then run through the procedure in our head and prepare a short verbal briefing. If you have longer, make notes (use the template – see below) and collect more information to help your decision making.

A word of caution – beware collecting too much information or waiting for additional information – there will come a point where there is so much information available it will actually begin to hinder decision making. Know when it is time to act – trust your instincts.

The Key Steps


Further detail around each of these headings is provided in the accompanying mind map – right click and then “Save” here for the MindView map.

When giving the team briefing

A face-face, verbal briefing is always best. If appropriate and there is time, issue a summary of the objective, the key elements of the plan, the key roles and contact details.

Ensure delegated actions are understood by staff, together with the overall objective and intent. Ensure everyone knows how progress is to be reported and when/where review checkpoints are. Ensure everyone knows what the communication channels are. Assign someone to manage communications with key people outside the immediate response team.

Key Points

This kind of crisis planning assumes that time is critical, that deadlines must be met – that an unusual situation requires and unusual response. Notice that no time is wasted searching for how and why the situation has arisen, other than where this knowledge may help a speedy resolution. The focus is entirely on planning and implementing a solution. Anyone who wants to spend time debating how this could have happened or what it might mean is not engaged with the solution – encourage to them to leave analysis of the cause till afterwards. Fix the situation first then review how it could have happened and how it might be prevented.

Full information may not be available to support decisions. Time spent waiting until more information is available may be time when more cost, upset and damage is incurred. In unplanned situations, dealing with uncertainty is a key management skill. Make whatever assumptions are needed and act based on these. Be prepared to change the course of action as new information comes to light or your assumptions change.

Don’t plan in too much detail – you need to think each option through and know what you will do but you don’t need to break the task down into minute detail, leave that to your team. Your plan establishes the goals for the task. The course of action you choose and initiate provides the direction your staff need to get things done. The fallback or contingency plans identify what people will do if anticipated problems actually occur. The course of action may be changed by you if new information changes your assumptions, if new problems arise or if opportunities for a speedier or more effective resolution present themselves.

Don’t forget your communications – with the staff involved in executing the plan and with your management and other identified stakeholders. Delegate someone to organise, communicate and chase attendees for review checkpoint meetings or telephone conferences.

When It’s All Over

Update everyone and send congratulations and thanks.

Update management and key stakeholders – this time include those left out until now as not critical, now is the time to bring them up to date.

Schedule an "after action" review of the plan, its implementation and success. Document what you would do if the event or crisis were to occur again. Identify any actions needed to strengthen capability for the future. This is about improving your response when this or similar situations arise.

Schedule a review to examine how the situation arose and how it might be prevented or the risks mitigated in future. This is about preventing the same situation arising again.

image A planning template or aide memoire was created from the MindView map by exporting it to Excel.  It’s available as a PDF file by clicking here.



The map is also available as a MindManager file from either Biggerplate or There’s a Map for That.


Disclosures - Process Overview There any many instances on the web where people have confused process mapping with flowcharting.  I’ll save you the tedium of professional debate on this and move quickly on to a great use for flowcharting for documenting business activity.

Post Procedure for Blog 2 Assuming that for each business process, you will produce a process diagram or map, each of these diagrams will have several process steps through which work progresses.  When you want to explore a process step in greater detail, flowcharting is a great way to get the logic straight.

The flowcharts provide useful documentation in their own right – for analysis and for training new staff, for instance.  However if used for training there is probably more detail you will want to add – lots more explanatory text, details of buttons to press, keys to hit, filing cupboards to access and so on.  You will probably want to include screen shots from systems and images of reports and documents also.  It’s at this point you might start thinking about producing a full blown procedure.

Action Post Procedure One approach is to re-key the flowchart into a mind mapping tool as a preliminary step.  Choose one with good export to Word features, here I have used MindView as I think it is the easiest to use and has the most predictable export results. The initial advantage of using mind mapping software is that you can retain the original structure of your flowchart as you add more detail and wrestle further with the logic and structure.

When you are ready, export the map to Word.  Time spent creating your preferred template and style set in Word will save you time later on, especially if you are creating many procedures through several iterations. Think carefully about how you use the different levels in the mind map so that they translate to the appropriate Word paragraph style.  Well thought out application of Word styles will help preserve the structure, levelling and flow. 

Procedure template Also decide how you will denote switches in logic flow and how to set out decisions.  I reserve using branch links or relationships for only big switches in logic flow – these become “GoTo’s” in the procedure document. 

Where a question is posed, consider using structured English with an “IF … THEN …. ELSE” style dialogue. 

Design a set of icons to use on the mind maps to highlight different ideas in the procedure, such as tips and examples.  These can be exported with the text to Word and will make your procedure document more engaging.

Once you’ve exported the mind map you are then free to add additional notes and images to complete the procedure.  You will only want to do this at the final stage so that any edits are not lost should you need to re-export the mind map.


Following on from the previous Strategy Into Action post, here is a worked example to illustrate the process in a little more detail.

The process is broken down into two major stages:image



Action Framework – sets the overall strategic aim and the subsidiary aims that will provide focus and direction (“Focused Directions”). It also considers the obstacles that may be encountered and allows for the end situation to be described to help recognise success when it is achieved – this is called the "Practical Vision".

Action Timetable – the critical part for getting things moving. Taking the information from the Action Framework, this stage identifies owners for the Focused Directions. Actions are identified and assessed against the Focused Directions to confirm they are worth doing and will contribute to the overall strategy. Confirmed actions are also scheduled against a simple timetable: now; in the next 3 months; 6 months; 9 months; next year. A simple schedule of high level actions is produced.



In the original post, 5 questions were introduced, which if answered, would lead to an a first pass strategy and action plan. 

Responses to questions 1-4 may be structured using the Action Framework stage. Answering question 5 provides the list of actions that are defined further in the Action Framework stage.




imageIn the example here, managers have considered what is needed for the future of their organisation’s Internet service and arrived at the Action Framework illustrated.


Next, they moved to the Action Timetable stage and listed and defined actions, paying particular attention to the "obstacles" they need to overcome and the things they need to do to achieve the "practical vision".



imageThe actions have been mapped to the relevant "direction" – the directions now providing useful streams of activity. Each of these was assigned an owner for delivery.

The actions were also scheduled against the broad timetable: now; next 3 months; and so on.






As you can see from the illustrations, all of this was captured and refined using a software tool, in this case MindView Business Edition from MatchWare. Using a tool such as this an outline report of the work can be created by exporting the analysis and planning to MS Word.




To better understand the schedule of actions we can use MindView to create either a timeline view or a Gantt view. These provide a better view of what is going to be done when. Additional work may amend the schedule and break down the actions into more detailed tasks. This may be done using the Gantt feature of the software or the data may be exported to MS Project.




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