Managing Conflicting Priorities During Crisis

Managing Conflicting Priorities

With fewer resources, added administrative tasks, and inefficiencies resulting from working remotely, The Commonwealth Institute (TCI) hosted a session designed to help business leaders sort through external factors and provide guidelines for staying focused on high-value tasks that produce results.

Kirsten Dolan, TCI Advisory Board Member and CEO of One Parking interviewed Tony Gruebl, Founder and President of Think, on managing during times of crisis and how to navigate the ever-changing business landscape.

Q: Describe what you are hearing and seeing in the market and how businesses are reacting? Are you seeing panic, are you seeing calm?  Looking for perspective of what’s going on and how it’s changed since March.

A: I had a guy call me who is a big, burly ex-firefighter, who started a company four years ago to provide training for other local mid-market companies around defibrillators, and active shooter simulations. During our outdoor coffee, I asked how he was doing, and he responded, “I’m depressed”. I’ve been hearing this a lot, people who are personally feeling unstable, not sure how to push forward, and it started a conversation that continues into this discussion. What I shared with him is that he needs to change his frame, his frame is based on today and needs to shift to a future oriented focus. Today is sort of temporary, tomorrow things can change and there is hope with that frame of mind.

We work with 25 mid-market companies at any given time, doing technology or operations advisory, running projects, finding the right people for their team. These companies shake out into a couple of different categories…

  • Virtually unaffected by COVID-19
  • Affected by COVID-19 but surviving
  • Completely devastated by COVID-19 (restaurants, hospitality, travel industry)

To one degree or another, companies in the middle (affected but surviving) are experiencing varying degrees of lost business. Initially there was about a six week period of shock, then most of us looked at our business to test stability, and after that, many that weren’t fighting a close down crisis, started to view COVID-19 as a crucible event or black swan event.  When you encounter one of these events it can take you out as a company, or it can make you a better operator in the marketplace.

Q: What are some of the ways that you are helping busy executives focused on high value activities. Working on things that matter that get results as opposed to everything else?

 A: When I hear that kind of question, I have to come back with what do you consider to be high value and how do you determine high value? There are frameworks that exist for this. Many entrepreneurs and small business owners have a tendency to run by the seat of their pants.  High value is the thing that helps them get them through the next day or the next week.

Think tries to encourage clients to look at their North Star, determine if there is a vision beyond this year, because what high value means depends on what that North Star is a year from now. When talking with the firefighter, I asked what his North Star was. I don’t know that he had one, he was focused on surviving the moment. If you’ve made it five months into COVID, you’re surviving. You have already done the things to prepare and help your organization survive an event like this, it’s not easy, and I certainly don’t want to minimize that effort.

Even in my business, I ask what Think will be in twelve months, what it will be in three years, what are the big ideas that we aspire to have our team work towards for the future. When you are in a moment like this, COVID is just a momentary blip. High value to me are the things that need to get done to get us there, in the future, three years out. We are surviving today, and we will be fine. We need to get that bigger vision accomplished, because that is what is going to pull us through.

High value is what you define as executives. You have to think about that long-term vision, and the things that are high value to you should be things to get you to that North Star vision. The things you are doing today that are not focused on achieving this vision, you are doing for survival or out of habit. I argue, the things you are doing out of habit you should just stop doing. We are in a crucible moment, a moment that shapes people and companies by fire. It’s going to change us in some persistent way, now is a great time to think about who you want to become.


BKPM Resolution Model

Q: In your book Bare Knuckle Project Management, there is a section where you talk about conflict. Even though that conflict focuses a little bit more on conflict with individuals, I think it is relevant in this discussion because tensions are very high, people are very frustrated, and it creates inevitably an environment where there is more conflict. Can you give a quick lesson on how best to deal with these types of interpersonal conflicts?

 A:  Bare Knuckle Project Management was written for project managers who need to operate under the guidance of COO or CEO, and not all project managers know how to operate that way. In the book we have this really simple construct called the Eisenhower Grid that points out what’s most important, what’s most urgent, and you can find compromise when you are able to assess your position and the position of the person on the other end. This is very cerebral stuff. The book was written five years ago, and we’ve grown since then.

What’s the real key to conflict resolution? I think the key is empathy. Once you begin to empathize with your opponent in a conflict, you can begin to see what’s most important to them. Sometimes it turns out that what’s most important to them is within your power to give, and what’s most important to you is within their power to give.

In regard to interpersonal conflict there is a lot of material available out there on this, a lot of psychology around the topic. As an operator you can use a standard matrix to work your way through, but what I try to do is try to understand why the conflict is happening and then empathize with what that person is trying to achieve. Empathy allows me to see the situation through their eyes and offer ways to resolve the conflict.

Q: One of the things I noticed when this pandemic first started, some of our clients were very on edge worried about their own security. Clients are not as visible as they used to be, harder to get a hold of, even though you would think being virtual would make it easier to connect. The conflict created by this crisis, seems to have impacted availability. Do you have any thoughts on this phenomenon, have you experienced this as well?

 A: In a crisis, we tend to focus inwardly on things that are causing us the most pain. Our clients are dealing with the fires they have right before them, they are under a tremendous amount of pressure, they may not know what the future holds. In order to re-engage with clients in this position, we need to develop a hopeful but empathetic message related to our relationship. With clients that are grasping for something beyond than the here and now, I’ve found this approach works well. Thinking about strategic alignment with my clients, and how they use this crucible moment to shape themselves for the future and to be more resilient to future shock.

Think about what your future message is, beyond COVID message, that allows you to have one moment of hopefulness so customers can hold their head up and say they want some of that.

Q: What is your starting point when there are conflicting priorities? How do you sort through it to begin?

 A: This is where we need to use some tools. Urgency creates a more efficient triage, this sort of occurs naturally. We can only do so much with what we have around us, and only have so much time to get it done. When you add the concept of high-value activities to this mix, and the notion of a North Star and then aligning what we have to get done to that vision of who we are and what we are doing, it allows us to shake out what we should be spending our time on.

The frameworks we use, from an enterprise perspective, include people, process, technology frameworks. How are the things we are doing from an outcome perspective being shaped by the people, processes, and technology; and do they lead to the North Star? If you can draw back from the day-to-day of your business and assess the business from a people, process, technology perspective against the North Star, it’s a really strong framework for determining what you should be doing today, tomorrow, next week, and next year. There are always standard priorities, we have to make cash flow work because we have to pay people, there will always be things that get in the way of the big thinking. However, if you take a moment to step back and define the North Star and make sure that people, process, and technology are focused towards it, you can then drive down in your business things that cost you time and money that fail to align to the vision you become even more efficient in your execution. You no longer need urgency and crisis to drive that natural triage.

Don’t let the daily whirlwind take you in divergent directions. Getting your team swimming in the same directions, towards a common vision is where you want things to be. To design this and be intentional about this design will impact your growth. When you design where you are going, you have a better chance of getting there.

Q: Some experts say to have an optimistic vision but be pessimistic in how you handle your business model. I think this is saying stay positive and have confidence in yourself, but don’t be overly optimistic when projecting numbers and planning resources. Do you have any thoughts on this philosophy?

 A: Going back to the whole COVID, black swan event we are experiencing, who saw this coming? I walked into 2020 thinking “This is going to be the BEST YEAR EVER!”, like that little kid from the Incredibles.  Then March 15 arrived, and Maryland shut down, and next New York was shutting down. This type of black swan event makes you look at what makes your business tick. There is no room for kidding yourself. Everything is going to get tighter and more efficient in the marketplaces that we operate in going forward. The slack is being driven out of our processes. So, is it optimistic? Or is it just forced realism. We are all facing a harsh reality of who we are as businesses, what has been built to this point.

What we need to do is take that heavy dose of realism and design our businesses based on the forging just experienced to be stronger for the next unexpected event. You can’t predict black swan events. This is a moment we can take the lessons learned and apply them to the future of the business. In doing this, it will drive slack out your processes, drive out inefficiency, and force you to become a more efficient operator in future markets. Look let’s face it; the world is not going to be the same after this. In time we will recover, but things will be different, and we need to adapt.

Q: There are a lot of initialisms in the world of goal setting, there are OKRs, KPIs, 4DX. Should we embrace one of these alignment tools, if so, how does it help me right away today?

 A: One thing that we need to think about is the intersection of where technology, operations, and change happens. When you change your organization or initiate some project or program that moves you in the North Star direction, that intersection point is where culture is most demonstrated in your business. This is what my second book The Red Pill Executive is about.

As executives of companies, we say our company has a certain culture, but you don’t really see the signs of culture in a real way until you get to the intersection of people, processes, technology, and change in a project. It’s here where you see what companies reward. You see the invisible framework of rewards and non-rewards in that moment. The reason I bring this up, is when you bring up the topic of OKRs, KPIs, and 4DX a lot about using these tools is heavily culturally dependent. Many companies don’t see their true culture until they begin to use these tools. Think has embraced objectives and key results (OKRs). The different tools lock into different types of culture, so it’s best to try a few to see which is the best fit for your organization.

Should you be using these frameworks? I think that depends on where you are in the maturity of your business. You need to know what your big objective is, where you want to be in three years. When you know this, you can align the entire organization to a mission, a set vision of who we are going to be in the future. This is what OKRs, KPIs, and 4DX is designed to do. I’d encourage you to add these to your reading list, learn about the methodology. It takes time to get good at using these tools. The journey is to get better than you were yesterday, incremental improvement.


About TCI

The Commonwealth Institute (TCI) is a non-profit organization devoted to advancing businesswomen in leadership positions in Massachusetts and Florida.  We are ambitious, success-oriented women committed to growing our respective organizations and to supporting each other as we accomplish our individual goals.

About Think

Founded in 2004 in Baltimore, Think is a privately owned technology and operations advisory firm that provides on-the-ground transformation and consulting, led by executives, adapted for the mid-market. Our team aligns company culture with your business mission and goals, leading to positive change and results. Think is now operating in both Baltimore and South Florida, working with client organizations to accelerate their growth. To find out more about Think, visit