the shape of leadership

Problem Solving in a Crisis

Five insights for finding a way forward

Churches must navigate a number of problems amid the COVID-19 pandemic, including health concerns, financial issues, and logistical challenges. In any crisis, problem solving is crucial. What does that look like in times like this?

Here are five tips for finding solutions and charting a path forward now and in the days ahead:

1. Diagnose Before You Decide

A crisis makes it abundantly clear we have a problem. Furthermore, a crisis usually creates a series of problems. Like a line of dominoes crashing down, one on top of another, a crisis leads to a cascading effect of challenges and difficulties.

If you’re not careful, you can fixate on a peripheral issue and miss the bigger problem. Before you decide what to do, carefully diagnose the situation. This may involve collecting data, evaluating metrics, monitoring external threats, surveying employees and members, and working with a team to gain varying perspectives.

It also helps to ask “why” over and over until you drill down to the core issue.

2. Identify Solutions

Once a thorough diagnosis is complete, begin identifying solutions to the real problem. This happens best with a team, and it requires a thorough understanding of the organization’s strengths and available resources.

After identifying the problem, pull your team together and ask, “How should the strengths and resources in this organization and team inform our solution to the problem?”

Your answer to that question will put you on a path forward.

3. Calculate the Impact

This problem-solving step is easy to overlook. As a result, “solutions” to problems can end up creating bigger problems. That doesn’t mean there’s a problem-free solution. In fact, problem-free solutions generally don’t exist. The key is to calculate what kind of impact your solution will have throughout the organization.

If you’re not careful, you can fixate on a peripheral issue and miss the bigger problem.

Once you’ve found a solution, have the team answer the question: “How will this solution impact our budgets, departments, staff, volunteers and highest priorities?”

If you don’t take time to calculate the ripple effect, the solution may actually extend the impact of the crisis.

4. Watch for Yellow Lights

When you’re driving around the city, what is your natural response when you’re approaching a yellow light? Yellow lights mean slow down as you prepare to stop. But if we’re close enough to the light, we may do the exact opposite, speeding up to get through the light and save precious time.

Unfortunately, we sometimes do the same in organizations. We work for days, weeks or even months on a new initiative. Then, just before we go live, there it is on the horizon: a bright, yellow light — a problem, a snag, an annoying missed detail.

In this narrow window of time, we may be tempted to speed up. We’ve worked so hard to get this far, and the last thing we want to do is put the brakes on our new strategy. The problem is, every yellow light ultimately turns red.

When you see a yellow light during a crisis — or anytime, for that matter — slow down, revisit your reality, ask hard questions, pray, and look for improvements or alternative routes. If you ignore the yellow light, you might get T-boned. What looks small from a distance can suddenly become a big problem.

5. Use a Triage Approach

I recently listened to an interview with Keith Hennessey, who served as director of the U.S. National Economic Council under President Bush during the 2007–08 economic crisis. Hennessey recommended taking a “triage approach” to problem solving.

Here’s how it works: You have a serious problem and several possible solutions — none of which is perfect. One solution probably has a higher chance of success, but it will still create some smaller problems. Hennessey’s advice is to “trade up” from the current large problem to smaller problems that will accompany the initial solution.

This triage approach to problem solving helps stop the bleeding. As you continue to navigate the crisis, you’ll continue trading up to better solutions and smaller problems.

In 1 Chronicles 12:32, the sons of Issachar “understood the times and knew what Israel should do.” As you navigate this crisis, may God give you wisdom to understand how to solve problems in these difficult times. The five insights listed above are a great place to start.

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