Wisdom from Worst-Case Scenarios: Leveraging Team Dynamics for Effective Collaboration in Times of Chaos

Ever have a green lights only sort of day? You know, the ones when the schedule is light, solutions abound, and everything seems to fall into place.

Everyone should be so lucky as to have one of those every so often.

More often than not, especially in the midst of complex projects, the days feel more like a series of never-ending red lights coupled with traffic jams, lane restrictions, construction, and a UFO landing squarely in the middle of town.

On these days, it can be awfully tempting to act from a place of frustration, desperation, and a false sense of control, becoming almost unrecognizable and nearly unbearable to the people around us.

But we can do better.

We can do better for our teams and our work, and in doing so better serve the larger goals we seek to attain.

We can acknowledge that we’ve done our best to prepare for most conceivable circumstances.

We’ve met our match in the unforeseen.

And most importantly, we’ve cultivated a team that can respond creatively, thoughtfully, and effectively.

We can both accept what comes and leverage the strength of our teams to overcome.


Managing at the Mercy of Mother Nature

Anyone who works in conservation, outdoor education, or has ever planned something as innocuous as a picnic, knows that the best laid plans will almost always be challenged by Mother Nature.

Doing anything outdoors, especially when it involves other people, is an ongoing exercise in contingency planning and a full relinquishing of any sense of control.

This was never more true than on a stormwater management project I worked on alongside a phenomenal group of partners, volunteers, and the best two interns a person could ever hope to hire.

The project was intended to minimize erosion in a community park by constructing a massive, two-tier stormwater planting to address a long-standing stormwater flow issue.

The plan was solid. The design was approved. And phase one was complete.

And that’s when Mother Nature said ‘hold my beer,’ dropping record rainfall on the project area and wreaking havoc on our best laid plans.


Making Sense of the Worst Case Scenario

As the team began to assemble on the morning after, the mood was grim. It was clear that the storm had some lessons to teach us.

Lessons that only come from the delivery of the worst-case scenario. Lessons that, when heeded, make all the difference in moving forward…successfully. And that’s exactly what the team did.

What Held? First up was to look at what worked. This was aided by the spontaneous utterance of three words. “It held…mostly.” Those were the first words of the last team member to arrive on site. She hadn’t been there for the woeful sighs at the beginning. She wasn’t adding on. She was offering something new and, as an added bonus, she was right. And it shifted everything that came next. It would have been easy to focus solely on what was broken, but instead, we took a moment to recognize the wins of the day. To start with what held and acknowledge that there were indeed quite a few things that we got right. This may seem a bit Pollyanna, and it might be, but if nothing else, it can lower the temperature in a group and help to repair damaged morale.

What Broke & Why? Next it was time to take a look at the weaknesses that Mother Nature had pointed out so brilliantly, using the cudgel of a massive summer storm. Were the breakages a result of inaccurate assumptions? Were they design flaws? We had to dig in and determine, through frank and open discussion, the root causes of each element that failed.

What is the Greatest Need? And once the objective review was complete, it was time to rank each element, identifying dependencies, so we could establish a new plan of action. A plan that would resolve the underlying fractures in the project and set us on a course for successful completion. Of course, there are always factors that are not within the control of a team. It’s important to sort through those as well so the agreed upon actions align with reality and not wishful thinking.  


Wisdom in Washouts

There are two enormous benefits to experiencing the worst-case scenario during a project: 1) you no longer have to worry about it happening and 2) you can use the experience to learn and grow.

Objective Overview

When you no longer have to worry about the worst-case scenario happening, you are relieved from the burden of fear and any need for wishful thinking. The worst has happened. You’re in it.

Now you can cast aside the rose-colored glasses in favor of objective overview. If you’ve planted the seeds of trust, empathy, and accountability in your team, you’ll have everything you need to guide them into collaborative, solution-oriented discussions that deliver a results-oriented plan.

In the case of the stormwater project, we took a few moments to shake our collective fists at the sky before settling into the business of solving the problems that had been exposed. It didn’t take long for ideas to begin floating and plans to take shape. This is what a strong team looks like: cooperation, diligence, and humor in the face of disaster.

Assumption Assessments

In addition to looking at the actual problems in front of you – the broken things that require fixing – it’s critical to review the assumptions that preceded them.

In a team where accountability and a collaborative spirit has been cultivated, it’s relatively simple to have a discussion about where things went sideways.

It doesn’t devolve into blame or finger-pointing, but rather heads straight toward targeted evaluation of the thinking that resulted in the situation at hand. It’s thoughtful, it’s respectful, and it’s fruitful.


Solving the Right Problem

When the stormwater project wrapped up, it looked vastly different from the initial design phase.

The storm delivered invaluable clarity that led to a few key adjustments to the plan.

Although it certainly wasn’t welcome, initially, embracing the worst-case scenario opened the door to identify critical weaknesses and elevate the right set of problems to fix. There was no need to start from scratch or dispense with the project as a whole.

All we needed to do was determine the key problems and identify what was within our control – and budget – to fix.  

From there, we made quick work of assigning the right people to the right problems. There was a reignited sense of purpose and a sense that we had all learned a few things from the process. And when is learning not an added bonus!


Putting Stormy Lessons to Good Use

Managing during an all-green lights period is a delight. And we should all be so lucky to experience a few.

But it’s when the unthinkable happens and calamity descends that truly great leadership can emerge and have its moment in the sun – or maybe the storm.

When you think of the all the lessons that worst-case scenarios have to teach us, ask yourself if you are doing enough to embrace them so your team can flourish, even in times of chaos.


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