by Rick Brenner
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.
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, especially wildland firefighters, we can learn some lessons that apply to managing projects or companies.
Wildland firefighters know that they're doing dangerous work. They're trained in safety, and everyone understands that safety is the first priority. Just as wildland firefighting is dangerous, organizational firefighting is career-dangerous. Too often we put our own careers at risk, and expect others to willingly do so, too. They rarely do.
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, we must configure high-risk assignments to benefit the people who accept them.
Wildland fire is a natural part of the 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. We see them as signs of our failure to anticipate well enough, or as signs of poor team performance.
Organizational fires are natural for some kinds of work. They happen in almost all innovative organizations, because innovation is a high-risk activity. When you plan a project, include reserves to handle organizational fires. Expect the unexpected.
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 a project is in trouble, and we try to save it, we inevitably 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. By trying to "put out" the fire, we put the larger organization — or its remaining resources — at risk. Focus on protecting the parts of the organization that aren't yet on fire yet, rather than on rescuing doomed ventures.
The US Forest Service uses a network of elite "Hotshot" teams to fight wildland fire. Local forest management staff may help out, but the hotshot teams are the primary firefighting resource. Team members are highly trained in wildland firefighting, they're in prime physical condition, and they're dedicated to their jobs.
For some reason, organizations typically rely on operational teams to extinguish their own fires. Except for a few consultants who do specialize in company or project turnarounds, we generally don't train or hire "organizational fire" specialists. Why not?
If your organization has many fires, consider designating and training an elite hotshot team of your own people. If you have a smaller organization, or if fires are rare, very high-risk or complex, use consulting specialists to fight organizational fires. Their experience is a valuable asset.
Fire danger is predictable. The Forest Service knows that when the weather is hot and dry, and when fuel is abundant, forest fires are more likely. They prepare accordingly.
Organizational fires usually take us by surprise. We know how good (or bad) business is, and we track revenue trends pretty well, yet we often fail to use that information to adjust activities that are "fire-prone" - until they burst into flame.
Create a Fire Forecaster function, responsible for predicting the likelihood of organizational fire. Understand that when business is brisk, the organizational "forest" is building up fuel for fires. When business slackens, the Fire Forecasters will help plan anticipatory cutbacks to reduce the incidence of organizational fire.
Wherever you go in US forests, you can see signs indicating the local fire status. Fire status determines the mode of operations for local forest management staff.
Although we're often in firefight mode, we don't really know we are, and we don't know what it means, exactly. This ambiguity limits our ability to act in unison.
Most organizations think of firefight mode as an informal concept, but you can make it formal. Defining a series of fire status levels for your organization removes ambiguity, and facilitates management actions in times of difficulty.
Historical data about fire conditions helps the forest service predict fire behavior. They use this information to allocate resources during fire season, and plan for the future.
Managers rarely know how much of the time the organization operates in "firefight mode," or even what kinds of projects tend to be fire-prone. We fight organizational fires blindly, often caught by surprise when they occur.
By formally declaring fire status, and tracking these declarations, management could acquire a new set of data streams that could be helpful for predicting and managing organizational fires.
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
For more info about wildland firefighting in the US, visit the US Public Broadcasting Web page about the Nova program "Fire Wars".
Does your organization spend too much time in firefight mode? Contact me to discuss your specific situation, by email at rbrenner@ChacoCanyon.com or by telephone at (617) 491-6289, or toll-free at (866) 378-5470 in the continental US.