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 workfires 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. Top Next Issue
For 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.
- 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.
Are 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!
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More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:
- Most of us get too much email. Some is spam, but even if we figured out how to eliminate spam, most
would still agree that we get too much email. What's happening? And what can we do about it?
- Team Thrills
- Occasionally we have the experience of belonging to a great team. Thrilling as it is, the experience
is rare. How can we make it happen more often?
- You Can't Control What Other People Think
- Ever think that the world would be a much better place if you could control what other people think?
Maybe it would be. And maybe not...
- Holding Back: I
- When members of teams or groups hold back their efforts toward achieving group goals, schedule and budget
problems can arise, along with frustration and destructive intra-group conflict. What causes this behavior?
- How to Get Out of Firefighting Mode: II
- We know we're in firefighting mode when a new urgent problem disrupts our work on another urgent problem,
and the new problem makes it impossible to use the solution we thought we had for some third problem
we were also working on. Here's Part II of a set of suggestions for getting out of firefighting mode.
See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness for more related articles.
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- When we disagree about abstractions, such as a problem solution, or a competitor's strategy, the cause can often be misunderstanding the abstraction. That misunderstanding can be a conceptual mondegreen. Available here and by RSS on December 20.
- And on December 27: On Assigning Responsibility for Creating Trouble
- When we assign responsibility for troubles that bedevil us, we often make mistakes. We can be misled by language, stereotypes, and the assumptions we make about others. Available here and by RSS on December 27.
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- Person-to-Person Communications: Models and Applications
- When we talk, listen, send or read emails,
read or write memos, or when we leave or listen to voice mail messages, we're communicating person-to-person.
And whenever we communicate person-to-person, we risk being misunderstood, offending others, feeling
hurt, and being confused. There are so many ways for things to go wrong that we could never learn how
to fix all the problems. A more effective approach avoids problems altogether, or at least minimizes
their occurrence. In this very interactive program we'll explain — and show you how to use —
a model of inter-personal communications that can help you stay out of the ditch. We'll place particular
emphasis on a very tricky situation — expressing your personal power. In those moments of intense
involvement, when we're most likely to slip, you'll have a new tool to use to keep things constructive.
Read more about this program. Here's a date for this
- Embassy Suites by Hilton Jacksonville Baymeadows, 9300 Baymeadows
Road, Jacksonville, Florida, 32256, USA: January 15, 2018,
Monthly Meeting, Northeast Florida Chapter of the Project Management Institute. Register now.
- Embassy Suites by Hilton Jacksonville Baymeadows, 9300 Baymeadows Road, Jacksonville, Florida, 32256, USA: January 15, 2018, Monthly Meeting, Northeast Florida Chapter of the Project Management Institute. Register now.
- Ten Project Management Fallacies: The Power of Avoiding Hazards
- Most of what we know about managing projects is useful and effective, but some of what we know "just ain't so." Identifying the fallacies of project management reduces risk and enhances your ability to complete projects successfully. Even more important, avoiding these traps can demonstrate the value and power of the project management profession in general, and your personal capabilities in particular. In this program we describe ten of these beliefs. There are almost certainly many more, but these ten are a good start. We'll explore the situations where these fallacies are most likely to expose projects to risk, and suggest techniques for avoiding them. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:
- 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.
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- A sort of Dr. Phil for Management!
- …extremely accurate, inspiring and applicable to day-to-day … invaluable.