Cultivating Calmness in a Crisis

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Quotes, Rules of Thumb, skmurphy, Startups

To prepare for a contentious meeting I read Russell Ackoff‘s “The Art of Problem Solving,” over an early breakfast to cultivate calmness in a crisis.

Cultivating Calmness in a Crisis

I had breakfast this morning at the Palo Alto Creamery in downtown Palo Alto. It’s a great place for breakfast (or lunch) with a nice ambience on the corner of Emerson and Hamilton. I had a 9:30am meeting with a client in Palo Alto so I packed up Russell Ackoff‘s “The Art of Problem Solving,” dropped my older boy off at school and strolled into the Creamery at about 8:20 with an took an hour to read, jot some thoughts, and enjoy a great breakfast. And a great place to cultivate calmness in a crisis.

I like Ackoff’s writing. His clear explanations of systems thinking renew my energy and sense of purpose. The 9:30 meeting was likely to be contentious: we were facing a crisis and startup founders, as they discuss strategy, can sometimes shed more heat than light on the future.

“Try to relax and enjoy the crisis.” Ashleigh Brilliant

Calm and Engaged Style Makes Points More Effectively

It’s been a relatively recent discovery of mine that I am a more effective advisor when I remain engaged but calm. I used to think if I made my points forcefully they were more likely to get through. But it’s become clear that question in a calm voice and a request to review whatever data is available more often leads to real change. To be calm in a meeting, it’s easier if I start out calm. To start out calm I find it’s useful to relax and do a little lateral drift before a meeting instead of thinking through all of the things that are wrong, going wrong, or likely to go wrong–it’s good to have a firm grasp on contingencies but it doesn’t always induce equanimity. Most startups have crises, some are a perpetual crisis (for a while).

“It May Look Like a Crisis, But It’s Only the End of An Illusion.”
“Rhonda’s First Revelation” from Gerald Weinberg’s book Secrets of Consulting

If a crisis can get a team to continue to eliminate illusions (mental constructs or hypotheses that are invalid), in particular anything that looks like a boundary condition but isn’t, then they can become opportunities.

“Creativity is the ability to identify self-imposed constraints, remove them, and explore the consequences of their removal.” Russel Ackoff

“It AIN’T so much the things we don’t know that get us into trouble.
It’s the things we know that just ain’t so.”
Josh Billings

Cultivating Calmness Allows You to Identify Illusions

But my ability to identify these illusions–Ackoff’s “self-imposed constraints”–is predicated on cultivating calmness; actually that’s not true. I can see them clearly when I am energized or angry, I am not particularly effective in communicating them in a way encourages other people to act on them. The normal sensation I feel in a crisis is a call to action, immediate action. Adrenaline is flowing and it’s time for action: we can’t be paralyzed by analysis, we have to take action. But the most frequent alternative to “analysis paralysis” is “extinction by instinct.” So what to do.

“The medicine for disaster is equanimity.” Publilius Syrus

The Best Bad Plan

“You can’t believe that a plan is real until you’re vaguely disappointed.” Rhett George

I think if you can see a way forward that’s not perfect but workable (or the “least bad” alternative”), it’s more likely you can get to a working consensus if folks remain relatively calm. It’s also key to make sure you have enough data. Startups have to make most decisions with 10-25% of “perfect information.” If you wait for 80-90% perfect information you are normally making your decision way too late. So if working out, walking, meditating, a quiet hour of reading, watching a favorite movie, going to a museum, getting enough sleep, or some other way of relaxing and clearing your mind helps you prepare for an important discussion then take the time to do so, especially when you don’t feel like you have the time.

Rhonda’s remaining two revelations (again courtesy of Gerald Weinberg) are also worth bearing in mind in dealing with change.

Rhonda’s Second Revelation: When change is inevitable, we struggle most to keep what we value most.
Rhonda’s Third Revelation: When you create an illusion to prevent or soften change, the change becomes more likely–and harder to take.
from Gerald Weinberg’s book Secrets of Consulting

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