Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 3, Issue 9;   March 5, 2003: Organizational Firefighting

Organizational Firefighting

by

Sometimes companies or projects get into trouble, and "fires" erupt one after another. When this happens, we say we're in "firefighting" mode. But it's more than a metaphor — we have a lot to learn from wildland firefighters.
A forest fire

Wildfires in southeastern Australia in 2009. Photo credit: U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

When companies or projects get into trouble, we take corrective action, and usually we get things back into alignment. When we can't, and when new problems come up one after the other, we often describe our activities as "firefighting." We think of ourselves as moving from fire to fire, putting out the flames.

Firefighting is a metaphor that's more useful than it first appears. If we study the operations of the professional firefighters, especially wildland firefighters, we can learn some lessons that apply to managing projects or companies.

Safety first
Wildland firefighters know that they're doing dangerous work. They're trained in safety, and everyone understands that safety is the first priority.
Organizational firefighting is career-dangerous. Too often we put our own careers at risk, and expect others to do so, too.
Asking people to take high-risk responsibilities without regard to their career health is unreasonable. If we want people to step forward when they're needed, and to be effective when they do, we must configure high-risk assignments to benefit the people who accept them. Put career-safety first.
Fire is natural
Wildland fire is a natural part of the forest ecosystem. Many plants and animals depend on the effects of fire for their own health and for their very survival.
Sometimes we think of "organizational fires" as annoying and unexpected — as signs of our failure to anticipate well enough.
Organizational Wildland firefighters
know that they're doing
dangerous work
fires are natural for innovative activity, because innovation is inherently risky. When you plan a project, include reserves for handling organizational fires. Expect the unexpected.
Fire spreads
Wildland firefighters don't try to extinguish major fires — they control them. They direct the fire into uninhabited areas, or into areas that will cause the fire to burn out.
When we try to save a project that's in trouble, we expend scarce resources and attention in what might be a futile effort. This puts other projects at risk, and can cause the organizational fire to spread.
When wisdom and experience suggest early cancellation or liquidation, consider these options seriously. Focus on protecting the parts of the organization that aren't yet on fire, rather than on rescuing doomed ventures.
Fight fire with hotshot teams
The US Forest Service uses a network of "Hotshot" teams to fight wildland fire. They're highly trained and dedicated to their jobs.
Organizations typically rely on operational teams to extinguish their own fires. Except for a few "turnaround" consultants, we generally don't train or hire "organizational fire" specialists.
If your organization has many fires, designate an elite hotshot team. If fires are rare, use consulting specialists to fight organizational fires. Their experience is a valuable asset.

Effective organizational management requires acknowledging the reality and importance of organization fire. To pretend that organizational fire doesn't exist, or that it can be completely eliminated, is to provide fuel for the next fire. Go to top Top  Next issue: Some Costs of COTS  Next Issue

52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!

Order from AmazonFor more on organizational firefighting, see "Organizational Firefighting."

Or visit the US Public Broadcasting Web page about the Nova program "Fire Wars," a documentary about a team of wildland firefighters called the Arrowhead Hotshots, filmed as they fought fires during the then-most-intense-to-date fire season of 2000. Order from Amazon.com.

Reader Comments

Dwain Wilder
Today's newsletter is inspired and inspiring! I wish I'd had that advice while I was on my last engagement in Software Configuration Management at Eastman Kodak.
At one point my manager was complaining to me about being dinged by his manager so unfairly while his team (us) was doing the only productive work in fighting a fire. I told him, quite spontaneously, "This project is a place where firefighters are accused of arson because they're the closest to the fire." It really hit him, and he said he'd like to use that line on his boss! I think it's often true in projects in crisis.

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