How (not) to manage your team in a disaster!

After the magnitude 9.1 earthquake on Friday, March 11, 2011, life in Tokyo changed forever… unless you’re a salaryman, then you are supposed to pretend everything is normal and go to work! On Monday, March 14th, even though aftershocks continued to hit, the Fukushima nuclear plant up North was blowing up and Tokyo Electric Company enforces blackouts in Tokyo to save energy, people continued to go to work like it was just another normal Monday! The news on TV was widely reporting how the train services were significantly cut back and people have to queue for more than 2 hours to get into OR out of the train station!! I couldn’t help but thought: “What are these people doing that are so important, so meaningful, that they need to continue doing it at a time like this?!”

Not being a pompous prick, but why would you wanna continue doing what you were doing at a time of national crisis like this? If there ever was a time to drop all the meaningless day-to-day job and change direction to work on something meaningful, it is NOW! (Needless to say, I’m more than just a little cynical and sarcastic, thanks to years of employment at large corporations in the USA, where one’s existence is like a tiny gear in a big machine.)

To give you a glimpse of what a normal Japanese employee must be going through, here’s a little e-mail conversation I had with my manager:

 

 

From: Nicholas Wang

Date: Mon, Mar 14, 2011 at 9:26 AM

Subject: Evacuation

 

I’ve found a cheap ryokan in Kyoto that has free internet connection so I can work. I’m going to leave Tokyo this later today / tonight and stake the rest of the week out in Kyoto to see what happens.

For the rest of today before I leave, I’ll coordinate with—— san and the developers on our weekly sprint meeting and this week’s stories + tasks. Since we’ve implemented everything I wanted to implement, we should be able to work from anywhere on Earth efficiently!

Please let me know if there’re any issues.


 

———- Forwarded message ———-

From: 

Date: Mon, Mar 14, 2011 at 12:33 PM

Subject: RE: Evacuation

To: Nicholas Wang

 

Hi Nick,

Please hold off finalizing travel arrangements on this until I get back to you later.

Further to our phone conversation earlier, I’ve spoken with ——–san but am still waiting for ———-san’s feedback, who makes decisions from a project management standpoint as you know.  If we’re to approve this, it will probably be until this Thursday only so that Friday regular meetings can be held as usual.

Thanks.

 

 

———- Forwarded message ———-

From: Nicholas Wang

Date: Mon, Mar 14, 2011 at 12:56 PM

Subject: Re: Evacuation

To: 

 

Hi —–,

I see, well, the situation in Tokyo / Kanto is literally on the edge right now, the govt and Tepco is barely keeping Tokyo running while trying to fix the nuclear meltdown up North… I’m not gonna tell the company what to do, but e.g. for US companies, management will tell workers to take care of their personal safety first, and decide on best way to work themselves rather than having management order from up top. (which would kill morale)

My top priority is my team’s safety, if they don’t feel safe for their lives, they can’t work. So I’ve communicated with them on Basecamp & IM about establishing emergency work schedule. Both ——- and —- are in the office now, and I’ll wait for them to get ready for weekly sprint meeting. Since I’ve implemented almost everything I needed to implement (Scrum, Pivotal Tracker & Git), we should be able to work very efficiently, with close to no affect on effectiveness and quality! (Given all workers feel safe for their lives and can concentrate.)

I’ll also take this chance to blog about how I’ve implemented this process and how we’re dealing with an emergency situation as we go along…

Sorry to be so different from the “norm”… I know it must be difficult to even tell the other Japanese managers, my way of management must be completely incomprehensible for them… but I hope they can see that I’m leading the “Western team” with some pretty awesome processes that they can learn from… and change!

Thanks,

 

 

———- Forwarded message ———-

From: 

Date: Mon, Mar 14, 2011 at 12:59 PM

Subject: RE: Evacuation

To: Nicholas Wang

 

Hi Nick,

I’ve discussed the matter with ———san.  At this point, we can only approve your absence until Wednesday, so that you’ll be back as normal from Thursday onwards.  If something extraordinary happens more, we can discuss an extension, but otherwise, let’s try to get back up and running as normal and recover from the slow down.

Please note that this is a very special arrangement, and we cannot share it with our colleagues here (other than ———san, ——–san  and myself).  The situation here is such that we will just tell relevant people that you’re sick in bed, and we appreciate your keeping it this way as well.

 

———- Forwarded message ———-

From: Nicholas Wang

Date: Mon, Mar 14, 2011 at 1:12 PM

Subject: Re: Evacuation

To:

 

Yup, got it! Yeah, at this point, none of us can really “plan” for the future right now, I’ve booked my tickets and will head West at 16:30, and operate from there taking one step at a time.

——–, I’m gonna do the sprint meeting after lunch in chat only, —— & — prefer it that way. Feel free to join us.

 

———- Forwarded message ———-

From: 

Date: 2011/3/14

Subject: RE: Evacuation

To: Nicholas Wang

 

Hi Nick,

A couple of changes to what I’ve told you earlier.

1)     You can stay away until Thursday so that you can have two full days in between.  Please make sure to come to the office on Friday morning as scheduled.

2)     We won’t tell our colleagues that you’re sick, but won’t mention your whereabouts unless someone specifically asks, either.  Please keep it this way on your end as well.

I guess you may already be on your way.  Please respond to this e-mail when you get a chance.

Thanks.

 

———- Forwarded message ———-

From: Nicholas Wang <clone.of.snake@gmail.com>

Date: Mon, Mar 14, 2011 at 9:39 PM

Subject: Re: Evacuation

To:

 

Hi guys,

I’ve safely arrived in Kyoto. I’m staying at http://www.capsule-ryokan-kyoto.com, it has free Wifi and also wired connection inside my capsule, so I’ll be able to work here no problem.

I’ll be keeping a close eye on the situation up North, I find it interesting that people are so eager to have things back to normal that they’ll act like everything is normal! This is a very dangerous mindset! Beware! Instead of trying to hurry thing back to normal, one should distant oneself from this “herd mentality”, be adaptive and find new paths to ensure one and one’s clan / organization survive… if you know what I mean.

Honestly, STAY SAFE!!!

 

I don’t know what to say… How would you manage your employees if your company is hit with a natural disaster? Mirror the above emails from my managers to me, this was the message I sent to my team:

 

Given the situation w/ Earthquakes & Nuclear meltdown, everyone (including me) must have a lot in their minds. 1st thing 1st, STAY SAFE!! Whatever you decide to do, please stay safe, notify the rest of the team about your decisions and how to contact you!

I believe one cannot concentrate to work and produce good products without the peace of mind. So, ensure your safety first, so that you can concentrate to work.

Now, it’s good that we’ve established the Weekly Sprint Meeting -> Pivotal Tracker re-prioritization -> tasks naming -> work -> rinse & repeat process… Now is a good chance to test out how we’ll work separately but be efficient and produce high quality results!

Guys, please reply and let me know your current status, if it’s possible to do our weekly sprint meeting today. Also, in the event we lost direct channels of communications, can we continue to move forward with just Basecamp + Pivotal Tracker?

Thanks, stay safe people!

-Nick

 

My team was dispersed over 3 different locations after the earthquake, but because I had established a good process – Scrum framework, Pivotal Tracker for Product Catalog, user stories estimation and prioritization, Git distributed source code versioning, and Basecamp for customers communications, we were able to quickly make adjustments and continue to work just as effectively as if we were sitting in the same office!

 

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Just another guy trying to beat the system and be released from the Matrix http://about.me/nicholaswang

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