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Volume 17, Issue 4;   January 25, 2017: How to Get Out of Firefighting Mode: Part I

How to Get Out of Firefighting Mode: Part I

by

When new problems pop up one after the other, we describe our response as "firefighting." We move from fire to fire, putting out flames. How can we end the madness?
Firefighter lighting grass using a drip torch

Firefighter lighting grass using a drip torch. This photo was taken in March, 1950, on the occasion of the first controlled burn at the Pipestone National Monument in Minnesota. Drip torches are also used in lighting backfires, which are helpful in controlling wildland fires in many kinds of terrain. A backfire consumes fuel that lies in the path of the main fire. When properly set, the air rushing in to feed the main fire directs the backfire toward the main fire. When the backfire and main fire meet, the main fire has no place to turn for fuel, and the two of them annihilate each other.

Setting a backfire in the business context when in firefighting mode would mean shutting down or suspending less-than-critical efforts before they develop problems that would require management attention.

Photo courtesy U.S. National Park Service.

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 resources
fire-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.

We'll continue next time with some tactics that require just a little preparation.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: How to Get Out of Firefighting Mode: Part II  Next Issue

How to Spot a Troubled Project Before the Trouble StartsProjects 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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