Invitation To a Crisis
Inc.|March - April 2021
Sometimes, a little added pressure can help your team scale new heights.
By Bill Shapiro

Jonathan McBride knows something about how teams behave in a crisis. For five and a half years, he had a ringside seat in the Obama White House as an oil spill swamped the Gulf Coast and an earthquake devastated Haiti; as the H1N1 virus and Ebola threatened the U.S.; as the government shut down. Same at BlackRock, in the high-stakes sway of the financial markets, and, before that, as a co-founder of a small business where dramas unrolled every day, from cash-flow squeezes to personnel flare-ups to can-this-really-be-happening-now? tech failures.

In those tense, swirling moments, he’s seen plans botched, messages mishandled, and opportunities squandered. But he’s also watched as teams responded to a crisis in ways that were flatout exhilarating: Communication quickened, hierarchies flattened, turnaround-time evaporated, talent blossomed, MacGyver-like fixes got the green light, mission-alignment reached 100 percent, and what truly matters suddenly truly mattered.

Which has led McBride, who served as the director of the White House office of presidential personnel and then as BlackRock’s global head of inclusion and diversity, to ask an against the-grain question: What if a leader were to invite a “controlled crisis” upon her own organization—and then weaponize it? McBride believes that carefully injecting a little pulse-racing, brow-mopping crisis into the system will not only spark moments of epiphanic insight but may also lead to electrifying growth.

Skeptical? Consider the scientific evidence that a small but intense physiological crisis—like high-intensity interval training or intermittent fasting—can have outsize health benefits. As McBride sees it, a controlled crisis will do the same for your workplace. He’s now developing these counter intuitive ideas for an executive MBA course. Here, he gives Inc. readers a sneak preview.

Most leaders think they’re doing a crackerjack job when they’re avoiding a crisis. But you’re saying—

Over time, smooth is best. Fluidity is part of what makes you fast and responsive. But you can create grooves that become your default responses. Hierarchies and habits can develop and calcify, and that chokes off new ideas and slows the business.

But how is a crisis the antidote to that?

A crisis instantly disrupts your routines and explodes your habits. When a group of people suddenly face a crisis— a threat—and there’s time pressure, they tend to get very mobilized, organized, and focused, and look for new ideas in places they normally wouldn’t. It’s like intermittent fasting: The early stages, when you’re depleting your system, trigger a whole bunch of things that are restorative and cleansing. A little jolt to a team—and the metabolic shift that follows—increases energy, iteration, and focus.

When would you activate a controlled crisis?

When you believe you’re not getting the best out of a group—how they approach things, the level of creativity or focus. Are they stalled or stuck? Or perhaps you see a competitive opportunity and you need rapid iteration.

How big a crisis are we talking about unleashing?

Think of it as a dial, not a light switch. Part of the beauty of a controlled crisis is that you can calibrate it. Ideally, you’re not disrupting the whole organization; you’re targeting one group with a booster shot of adrenaline. You don’t need a five-alarm crisis to get the benefits.

Just like with fasting. You can’t go too long without food.

Right—you will die of starvation. Which is why managing in ongoing crisis mode is not a good idea. But take a look at the science. When you hold back inputs or resources, you actually induce the body to optimize itself. Same thing with high-intensity interval training. When you raise your heart rate to 80 percent of its maximum for a short period of time, good things happen.

So how would you start a controlled crisis?

The most obvious lever is time. If turnaround time is usually two weeks to prep a board presentation, now you say you need it in four days. That shared sense of risk combined with an aggressive timeline leads to a bucking of the system in beneficial ways. Or you can, without notice, cut away approval layers, which has the effect of increasing people’s sense of responsibility.

What does that look like?

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