Some of us have been in firefighting mode so long that getting far enough ahead of the fires to carve out some time to make sensible plans can seem like an unattainable goal. But by changing the way we deal with urgent problems, we can increase the likelihood of returning to routine. Here are four suggestions for breaking out of firefighting mode by changing how we address the fires.
- Triage the problems
- Instead of letting the order of discovering problems determine their priority, set priorities consciously. Designate a small team — two or three people are usually enough — to assign a priority to each problem as it arrives. Let them decide who is available to work each problem when its time comes.
- This is the group that must occasionally make the hard decisions to "let some fires burn." (See "How to Get Out of Firefighting Mode: I," Point Lookout for January 25, 2017) Such decisions will stick only if the members of this group have the respect of the team and their management.
- Empower the problem solvers
- Concentrating decision-making authority in the hands of a few carries a risk of creating bottlenecks, which then compromise a team's ability to get ahead of fires.
- With regard to problem solving, push decision-making out onto a larger circle of problem-solvers by creating authority boundaries that enable more people to solve problems with autonomy. Some tactics that help:
- Specify Concentrating decision-making
authority in the hands of a
few carries a risk of
creating bottlenecksclasses of problem solutions that can be implemented at lower levels.
- Assign problems to the lowest level available team members who are qualified to deal with those problems.
- Provide expert advice and support to less-expert problem solvers rather than dedicating experts to solving problems.
- Search for common causes
- Sometimes problems that appear to be unrelated are actually different sets of consequences of the same underlying problem. When this happens, solving problems independently wastes resources. Worse, independent "solutions" are unlikely to succeed, and might even conflict.
- Keep in mind the possibility that a single issue can manifest itself differently in different contexts. Before investing significant time and resources in solving two problems independently, seek convincing evidence that they really are independent.
- Include firefighting in risk plans
- If your organization has much experience with firefighting mode, planning for firefighting risk can reduce the likelihood of fires, and reduce fire lifetime when fires erupt.
- A firefighting risk plan could include criteria for declaring and terminating states of fire danger. Three levels of fire danger are probably sufficient. Define routine procedures for each level. Examples:
- Level 3: Elective paid time off is suspended
- Level 2: Triage team is activated
- Level 1: Triage team deactivated and elective paid time off is encouraged
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:
- Declaring Condition Red
- High-performance teams have customary ways of working together that suit them, their organizations,
and their work. But when emergencies happen, operating in business-as-usual mode damages teams —
and the relationships between their people — permanently. To avoid this, train for emergencies.
- The Weaver's Pathway
- When projects near completion, we sometimes have difficulty letting go. We want what we've made to be
perfect, sometimes beyond the real needs of customers. Comfort with imperfection can help us meet budget
and schedule targets.
- The Injured Teammate: II
- You're a team lead, and one of the team members is suddenly very ill or has been severely injured. How
do you handle it? Here are some suggestions for breaking the news to the team.
- Communication Traps for Virtual Teams: II
- Communication can be problematic for any team, especially under pressure. But virtual teams face challenges
that are less common in face-to-face teams. Here's Part II of a little catalog with some recommendations.
- Nonlinear Work: When Superposition Fails
- Much of the work we do is confounding, because we consistently underestimate the effort involved, the
resources required, and the time required to get it done. The failure of superposition can be one reason
why we get it wrong.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming November 22: Motivation and the Reification Error
- We commit the reification error when we assume, incorrectly, that we can treat abstract constructs as if they were real objects. It's a common error when we try to motivate people. Available here and by RSS on November 22.
- And on November 29: Manipulators Beware
- When manipulators try to manipulate others, they're attempting to unscrupulously influence their targets to decide or act in some way the manipulators prefer. But some targets manage to outwit their manipulators. Available here and by RSS on November 29.
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