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Sunday night I spilled half a cup of cold coffee directly onto my brand new HP Envy 14 notebook. Today is Tuesday and—using an external keyboard—I am transferring as many critical files from the now wounded computer over to another computer that I will have to use for a couple weeks. Fortunately, I purchased the extended warranty and spills are covered (so much for those who say these warranties are not worth it). I thought it might be therapeutic to see what lessons about dealing with a crisis I can draw from this experience.

As I thought about this, I realized I had gone through several stages from the moment the accident happened to the start of writing this post. I think these stages may be comparable to what organizations go through when they face a crisis of whatever sort. I hope you will bear with me if this comparison does not work in every detail.

  1. Unbelief. The first stage was simply unbelief. I sat there and stared at my computer as the brown liquid settled between the keys and flowed off the sides. I don’t know how long it went, but there was a brief moment when I did absolutely nothing. My mind was trying to reject the incoming data, as it was too horrible to contemplate. Organizations also go through this moment of paralysis as they try to take in the gravity of the situation. If you are fortunate, this period will not last long because the longer it lasts the more damage the crisis can inflict.
  2. Panicked Action. Finally, it registered that coffee was seeping into the internal guts of my computer! I jumped out of my seat. I grabbed the notebook with both hands, lifted it above my head, and shook it as though trying to get the coffee to repent and come forth. I then ran to the kitchen, ripped off several yards of Bounty paper towels, ran back to my computer, and began sopping up the flood. This panicked phase was full of energy, movement, and action. As it turned out, this activity probably kept the disaster from being worse than it actually turned out, but it was definitely not the solution to my problem. Organizations that live constantly in this kind of panic mode are unable to make the kinds of decisions that will bring long-term improvement. They live in a constant mode of averting absolute disaster and maintaining things at a minimal damage control phase.
  3. Self-castigation. After emptying a can of canned air trying the coax the droplets out from under the keys, I finally gave up and went to bed. It was then that I heard my inner voice saying, “That was really dumb you know.” Organizations can also get into the phase where they develop an atmosphere of accusation as members of the organization blame one another for the disaster. Of course, attributing blame does not really solve the problem.
  4. Work the problem. The fourth stage happened about 43 minutes after I had gone to bed. I got to thinking, “have I done enough?” I finally got up and went back to my computer. I got out several Philips head screwdrivers and tweezers. I turned the computer upside down and started dismantling. Once the battery and hard drive were removed, I was able to blow hot air from a hair blower more directly into the inner parts of the computer. This phase was less panicky and more thoughtful. It was a calm and determined process of simply working the problem. This is a healthy moment for an organization too as they get into the mode of actually working the problem, doing what they can to minimize the damage.
  5. Remorse. My self-castigation eventually turned into remorse as I realized that real damage had been done–the keys on the right side were not responding to my efforts to resuscitate them. That is when it really hit; I would have to deal with all my work tomorrow in the midst of trying to repopulate another computer. But it was also a moment of a sense of satisfaction that I had almost everything backed up in one way or another. I use DropBox as my backup system (in spite of those who say it’s not supposed to be for backup). It works for me. I am also heavily invested into Evernote and (of course) iTunes. These three services meant that I had almost every piece of information in the cloud where I could simply download it again to my computer. I think the period of remorse is healthy for organizations too as they contemplate the gravity of the crisis. It motivates us to take steps in the future to avoid similar mishaps.
  6. Acceptance. The next stage was probably the most productive as I simply accepted the facts and made plans accordingly. Arrangements were made to use my wife’s old computer and to ship my HP to be repaired. In this phase, organizations can work on making final repairs to the system (both technical and reputational) and can get back to work.
  7. Reflection. In the final stage, I was able to think back on what had happened and to learn some lessons from the experience. I learned some things about myself; for example, I learned that I needed to get to bed earlier. The late night work I was doing caused my careless movement that spilled the coffee. I also learned a deeper lesson about my over-dependency on technology and that ultimately it’s all about relationships with people and with God that count the most. Organizations do well to take time to reflect on how they deal with the stuff that happens. Don’t just get back to work, satisfied that things are back to normal. Make sure you capture the learning to be had from the experience.

What do you think? Do these stages ring true for you in your organizational experience?


Photo: Spilled the goodness by Kevin Fricke, December 4, 2008. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

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Dr. Greg Waddell is passionate about helping church leaders equip their people for ministry. He believes there is wild potential in every believer that begs to be released. He can help you develop and implement practical strategies for increasing the ministry capacity of your congregation.