The Google dictionary definition (OxfordDictionaries.com) of firefighting in business is incomplete. It defines firefighting as, "the practice of dealing with problems as they arise rather than planning strategically to avoid them." I don't know about you, but that sounds a lot saner that what I've experienced. I've found it to be more like: "the practice of applying temporary fixes to urgent problems, rather than resolving them permanently, whilst being continuously interrupted by other problems, many of which had received temporary fixes earlier, but which have erupted into flame again." Avoiding problems strategically is indeed a preferred alternative, but in true firefighting mode, we have no time for that. We just smother the flames as best we can and move on.
Planning strategically to avoid problems is a way to avoid falling into firefighting. But in firefighting mode, by definition, we can't plan strategically, because we're too busy fighting fires. So how do we get out of firefighting mode once we're in it?
Begin by realizing that when any part of the enterprise finds itself fighting fires, something about the enterprise culture is likely among the root causes. And unless the enterprise culture is your responsibility, don't try to change the culture. We never do well when we try to do someone else's job. (See "Stay in Your Own Hula Hoop," Point Lookout for June 27, 2001, for more) So what can we do?
The general strategy is to be the best, most effective firefighter you can be. Let's begin with some tactics you can use immediately.
- Plan the next 30 minutes
- In a In a fire-ridden environment,
making longer-term plans is a
waste of time and resourcesfire-ridden environment, making longer-term plans is a waste of time and resources. The general chaos will undo any longer-term plan before the email or text announcing the plan even gets read.
- Having no plan at all is trouble too; so do make plans, but only for the immediate present. Example: for meeting agendas, allocate time to each item. Another: Decide to spend the next 15 minutes focused on just this one problem.
- Let some fires burn
- Firefighting mode persists, in part, because the people fighting the fires can't get far enough ahead of the fires to extinguish them. Trying to extinguish all the fires thus prevents extinguishing any of the fires.
- Focus your resources. Free up resources, and reduce the risk of additional distracting fires, by dropping objectives that have limited impact on other objectives. If any of these objectives are already in flames, let 'em burn if you can.
- Set backfires
- Wildland firefighters sometimes set backfires to deprive the wildfire of fuel, thus limiting its spread.
- Take a hard look at objectives that seem to be progressing, but which aren't absolutely essential. Regard them as fuel that could burst into flame at any moment. By abandoning these objectives proactively, you limit the chances of additional fires, and free up resources for fighting the fires you already have.
Projects never go
quite as planned. We expect that, but we don't expect disaster. How can we get better at spotting disaster when there's still time to prevent it? How to Spot a Troubled Project Before the Trouble Starts is filled with tips for executives, senior managers, managers of project managers, and sponsors of projects in project-oriented organizations. It helps readers learn the subtle cues that indicate that a project is at risk for wreckage in time to do something about it. It's an ebook, but it's about 15% larger than "Who Moved My Cheese?" Just USD 19.95. Order Now! .
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More articles on Project Management:
- Project Improvisation as Group Process
- When project plans contact reality, things tend to get, um, a bit confused. We can sometimes see the
trouble coming in time to replan thoughtfully — if we're nearly clairvoyant. Usually, we have
to improvise. How a group improvises tells us much about the group.
- How to Make Good Guesses: Strategy
- Making good guesses — guessing right — is often regarded as a talent that cannot be taught.
Like most things, it probably does take talent to be among the first rank of those who make conjectures.
But being in the second rank is pretty good, too, and we can learn how to do that.
- The Retrospective Funding Problem
- If your organization regularly conducts project retrospectives, you're among the very fortunate. Many
organizations don't. But even among those that do, retrospectives are often underfunded, conducted by
amateurs, or too short. Often, key people "couldn't make it." We can do better than this.
What's stopping us?
- Scope Creep and the Planning Fallacy
- Much is known about scope creep, but it nevertheless occurs with such alarming frequency that in some
organizations, it's a certainty. Perhaps what keeps us from controlling it better is that its causes
can't be addressed with management methodology. Its causes might be, in part, psychological.
- Symbolic Self-Completion and Projects
- The theory of symbolic self-completion holds that to define themselves, humans sometimes assert indicators
of achievement that either they do not have, or that do not mean what they seem to mean. This behavior
has consequences for managing project-oriented organizations.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming February 21: The Ultimate Attribution Error at Work
- When we attribute the behavior of members of groups to some cause, either personal or situational, we tend to make systematic errors. Those errors can be expensive and avoidable. Available here and by RSS on February 21.
- And on February 28: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: I
- Briefly, when people exhibit narcissistic behavior they're engaging in activity that systematically places their own interests and welfare ahead of the interests and welfare of anyone or anything else. It's behavior that threatens the welfare of the organization and everyone employed there. Available here and by RSS on February 28.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.