How To Manage A Website Crisis

We are the first point of contact when our clients have a crisis situation with their website. Over the years we have developed some guidelines to help resolve serious website issues as quickly as possible. These guidelines help you build your team instead of destroying it during a crisis. Your team has the wisdom needed to help you focus on what matters most. And they will help you find the right pace and approach to the troubleshooting effort.

The guidelines that follow are proximally in order of importance, but not exactly.

Stay Calm, Well-Informed, Positive, and Focused

This applies to any emergency of course, but it's worth reiterating with regard to resolving a website-related crisis. It is of critical importance that when you encounter a serious website problem, you stay in possession of your mind and continue to listen, throughout. You are about to think some of the most important thoughts of your year. Do what's necessary to keep those thoughts calm, well-informed, positive, and focused.

My guess is that you've read this far into the guide because you are in a leadership position. You may be the primary party responsible for a revenue-generating website. You remaining positive, calm, well-informed, and focused is of paramount importance. Anything else erodes and eventually destroys the teams of people who work for you.

Pressure and stress bring out the worst in humans. Positivity, tranquility, and clarity of focus bring out the best.

Slow Down

In a crisis, when you're stressed, you're going to move too fast. You’re going to scramble to DO something. You're going to reach for the 'kill switch' too soon. You're going to restart the wrong servers. You're going to cut off the wrong people's access. You're going to generally overreact. Slow down. Remember; positive, calm, well-informed and focused. Maintain perspective, remind the team that you will work together to solve the problem, and remind yourself to breathe. In and out.

Keep Your Communication High-Touch

One of your first instincts is to go into a reactive mode, put your head down, tell people to stop asking questions, and go about the business of trying to fix what's broken with great urgency. This may feel good since you’re doing something, and it feels like you're working, but it's actually bad since you have isolated yourself and muzzled your team. You either lead a team or you're part of a team or you rely on some teams. So you have a responsibility to them. Cutting off communication starves a team. Feed the team instead. Remain positive and calm, gather the facts, hear from all appropriate parties, come up with a plan, and communicate the plan loudly and continuously as you execute it

In every crisis I've dealt with, not communicating early and often has made the problems far worse, mainly by stressing people out even more as they waste time and energy wondering what's happening.

Be Systematic

Now we move a bit out of the right-brain feelings and communication stuff and into the left-brain stuff. Notice how the left-brain activities of analysis and systemization took a back seat to the right-brain activities of communicating and working smoothly with others. The humans come first. And now that you have them on board, calmed down, and aligned to take positive action, make sure that the action is the right action.

Again assuming you're in a leadership role, it's now your task to set the tone and create the environment needed for productive thinking. Yes, you're in a crisis, so there's at least a little chaos around you. Chaos creates stress, and stressed out minds do not think orderly thoughts. But orderly, systematic thoughts are exactly what's required right now.

Imagine you are at the store. Your car breaks down. You decide to walk home. Do you meander all over the neighborhood sniffing in garbage cans, talking to cats, chasing leaves blowing in the wind? Or do you plot a course and follow it without deviation?

You're trying to troubleshoot a broken thing on your website. It's 2022. Nothing is simple on the Internet anymore. You have to systematically move through the array of factors contributing to the problem and isolate the ones that matter. Members of the team will not mean to be disruptive, but they will want to jump to a solution and this can distract you from thinking systematically. "Hey, do you think the problem could be the fan belt?" “Someone’s been stealing catalytic converters in the neighborhood!” You need to help keep them on track by your example, so keep focused on the work of asking good clear questions and practicing disciplined follow-up to make sure you get a meaningful answer.

You’ll know you’re successful at being systematic in your approach if you’re annoying people. Normally people don’t focus single-mindedly in a group. They each want to make their individual contribution. So if you manage to get a team to think systematically, all moving together in the same direction, you will also manage to annoy at least a few of them. You’ll have to compel them to stay on track with the plan a bit more than you’d like. Keep your communication high-touch. Listen. Don’t waver in your intention.

Triage Well

Identify the scope of the problem, identify actual risks, and validate against real data.

Do you remember MAS*H? That 70's era TV show with Alan Alda? In every episode, you saw a group of doctors and nurses conduct wartime triage of the injured. Effective triage requires you to quickly but thoroughly evaluate the scope and importance of the problem. How wide-spread is it? How many people are affected? For how long have they been affected?

Once you get a feel for the scope of the problem you see it for what it really is. Sometimes you thought a crisis was huge but then you realize it only affects 1% of your users. You can relax a little. Then again, sometimes you can detect that the 1% is growing and the problem is larger. So now you need to identify the actual risks. Get out of the 'what if' zone and move into the zone of well-informed certainty about the nature of the risks and the impacts on your customers, your team, the website, etc. The scale of the issue as well as the immediate and long-term impacts of the issue must be evaluated. For example, while 99% of users may be affected by an issue, the issue could be extremely low risk once you evaluate it. Then again, the scope of the problem could be small, involving just 1% of users, but the risk to that small group of users could be great.

Use real data to evaluate scope and risk. You will have to do some guessing and extrapolating because you need to move quickly. But even as you move quickly, remember to keep your mind calm and move deliberately. You're being systematic so you can also be scientific, which means gathering good data and evaluating it critically. Be careful when gathering statistics of how many customers have been affected by a problem. These numbers inform a great deal of the rest of the work you're going to do.

Collect All The Information You Can, Then Edit Ruthlessly

Related to the above, you're being systematic and scientific. You're collecting relevant data and as much of it as is practicable. This is one of the tools you will use to overcome the human side of this crisis, the panicked, irrational, impatient side.

Be like Richard Feynman when he evaluated the Challenger Disaster. Sort through the data. Move through the facts. Isolate the ones that matter. Eliminate the ones that don't and be ruthless with how you adhere to the truth you uncover. Keep taking information in, and discarding what’s not moving you towards your goal.

Wait For Responses to Good Questions But Watch The Clock

You're collecting data and being scientific. You don't just do one data collection cycle and then stop. In a crisis, you're constantly collecting verifiable facts. You're sorting through and discarding the ones that are not relevant. You're keeping the good stuff.

A big part of this process is gathering facts from the people on your team or the teams you work with. You want to rush them, but they need time to get good data together. If you rush them, they may rush and you will get garbage instead of actionable information.

With this in mind, it is up to you to keep some guardrails around the process. You must strike a healthy balance between ensuring that people appreciate the high stakes of the situation while at the same time not breathing down their necks and stressing them out. The best method is to ask people to set their own deadlines. “When can you have this for me? Is that realistic?” Agree on a deadline with them. And then you make sure those deadlines are hit. You're the manager after all.

Come Up With a Clear Plan and Update It Only When Necessary

Remember the importance of staying calm, positive, well-informed, and focused? All of that is facilitated by having a plan. Plans reassure people. They unite people towards a common goal, and assign roles and responsibilities. They clearly communicate where you are and where you are going, and what to keep in mind as you go.

One of the most important aspects of your plan, aside from having one, is that you stick to it. The biggest challenge involved in making a plan in a crisis is that you are in the middle of a crisis. The plan is not going to be very good at first. You don't have enough data yet. You’re improvising and using your experience. In fact, in most cases, the majority of the plan is focused on how to gather meaningful data. The other part of the plan is acting on the data. As you acquire more data and understand the issue better, you will want to change the plan. But use caution with how frequently you change the plan. Depending on the scope and risk and urgency of the crisis, you may need to set a plan and not change it any more often than every 3 hours. Hopefully, you're in a more slow-burning crisis that can have plans set on a 24-hour basis before they are amended. Whenever you update the plan, immediately communicate to everyone involved that the plan is updated and make sure they have access to it. Conduct your updates and communicate about them as systematically as you are doing everything else.

Planning generates calm. Changing the plan creates chaos. As you gain more insight into the crisis you're managing, the plan must change. But do so at controlled intervals to control the level of chaos and stress the changes will generate. And communicate clearly, calmly, and thoroughly. Knowing what’s happening at every step also generates calm for your team.

Do It Right The First Time

This is a goal, not a requirement. We all would prefer the luxury of time to plan, to measure twice and cut once. You can't always do that in the middle of a crisis! But when you can you'll be greatly rewarded.

I live in a university town. On a regular basis, the university students take to the streets to protest something. Sometimes windows get broken downtown. All of the merchants in the high-risk areas have carpenters on retainer to come and board up the windows after protestors have thrown bricks through them. When the carpenters get the call, they race around boarding up all of the storefronts they've been contracted for. They are working on a short timeline and don't have time to make a bad cut and waste a piece of plywood. They go just as slowly as necessary to cut only once. Their problems expand exponentially if they have to race back to the lumber yard to get more wood. The same applies to you dealing with your crisis. Do what you can to take the right actions at the right time and spare yourself do-overs and secondary problems

Handpick a Few Smart, Trustworthy People To Work With

You've heard the expression 'too many cooks in the kitchen will spoil the broth'. This applies doubly to managing a crisis. Sometimes people climb all over one another to get involved in dealing with a big website problem, as it’s an exciting opportunity to maybe be a hero. But the truth is that usually you only need a few people, the right people. You need the people with the right levels of system access. You need the people who can stay calm and positive. You need people who have disciplined orderly minds. And perhaps most important of all, you need people you trust.

Don't have too many cooks in the kitchen. But also don't have only one! The weight of a web crisis is too heavy to be carried by one person, and it’s easy to lose perspective when you are in your own little bubble. Stress is better managed when it's distributed. Share the burden.

Have witnesses too. In a crisis humans get stressed. When they get stressed they point fingers, blame and lash out. Counteract this by having some calm, sane people in the room. Sometimes these people need to be explicitly on your side. But usually, it's sufficient that these people be rational, orderly thinkers.

Document As You Go

Remember the high-touch communication thing? Follow that up with documentation. It's usually sufficient that you reiterate your findings and re-capture the plan you're working on in writing. Use Slack or email or a project management tool. But keep a subset of the information in writing for later reference. You may have to cover your ass, but more likely you just need to have an objective place to refer back to if things change, or you need to look back at the whole discovery process to see the big picture.

Don’t Let The Urgent Crowd Out The Important

This is an interesting one. It's one of my favorite little techniques for helping to manage a crisis.

You are in a leadership position. You likely manage a team. You have a lot of important things to be doing and they are all being derailed by this crisis you have to deal with. If your work life is like mine, there's always some sort of a crisis of one size or another. If you're not paying attention you will spend your whole career putting out fires instead of building stuff.

Since you know that, you must delegate. So what should you delegate? You know that you have to gather data. And you know that will take some time. Use that time when you are waiting for your team to get back to you to just get back to work on the important stuff that's been crowded out by the urgent. A funny thing may happen to you. By stepping away and back into “normal” work, you may gain some additional perspective on the crisis you're managing. Its urgency will slip a little bit for you, and your experience of it may change. Working on your other important tasks helps diffuse the tendency to obsess and fixate, and can open your mind to new ways of thinking about your urgent problem. Taking this time can also help your team, by giving them the space they need to focus on what you’ve delegated to them.

Never Squander a Crisis

This is one of my favorite management maxims. I picked it up just before the COVID-19 pandemic from one of our long-time clients. In a crisis there's chaos. This can be sinister but it can also be benevolent. In chaos there's opportunity.

In a crisis, you are going to see people for who they are. They will show their true selves. This is good.

In a crisis, old assumptions will be proven false. Old ways of doing business will be exposed for their frailty. This is good.

In a crisis, things will get destroyed and swept away. This creates space for new things to come in. Shiva the Destroyer will have her way. In her place, better things will emerge. This is good.

If you’re like me you have been wondering from the beginning of this post why the crisis occurred in the first place. You have probably even asked yourself while in the middle of one, what can we do to make sure this never happens again? Don’t squander this opportunity and don’t let the urgent crowd out the important.

We’ve seen clients go from one crisis to another without remediating anything. I saved these last two points for the end of this post because they are likely the most important. I could have put them at the beginning of the post, we could have discussed how you could have prevented this crisis. But I want you to have this to take away with you. It’s important. Don’t squander this crisis by diving directly into the next one without applying the valuable lessons you’ve learned.

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