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
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!
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.
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More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:
- The Hypothetical Trap
- Politicians know that answering hypothetical questions is dangerous, but it's equally dangerous for
managers and project managers to answer them in the project context. What's the problem? Why should
you be careful of the "What If?"
- What Makes a Good Question?
- In group discussion or group problem solving, many of us focus on being the first one to provide the
answer. The right answer can be good; but often, the right question can be better.
- I've Been Right All Along
- As people, we're very good at forming and holding beliefs and opinions despite nagging doubts. These
doubts lead us to search for confirmation of our beliefs, and to reject information that might conflict
with our beliefs. Often, this process causes us to persist in believing nonsense. How can we tell when
this is happening?
- Overconfidence at Work
- Confidence in our judgments and ourselves is essential to success. Confidence misplaced — overconfidence
— leads to trouble and failure. Understanding the causes and consequences of overconfidence can
be most useful.
- 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.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming August 21: Perfectionism and Avoidance
- Avoiding tasks we regard as unpleasant, boring, or intimidating is a pattern known as procrastination. Perfectionism is another pattern. The interplay between the two makes intervention a bit tricky. Available here and by RSS on August 21.
- And on August 28: Playing at Work
- Eight hours a day — usually more — of meetings, phone calls, reading and writing email and text messages, briefing others or being briefed, is enough to drive anyone around the bend. To re-energize, to clarify one's perspective, and to restore creative capacity, play is essential. Play at work, I mean. Available here and by RSS on August 28.
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- The Race to the South Pole: Lessons in Leadership
- On 14 December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached
the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the
race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical
drama, why this happened is interesting enough. But to organizational leaders, business analysts, project
sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. We'll use the history of this event to explore
lessons in leadership and its application to organizational efforts. A fascinating and refreshing look
at leadership from the vantage point of history. Read
more about this program. Here's a date for this program:
- Baldwin-Wallace University, 275 Eastland Road, Berea, Ohio
44017: November 7,
Kerzner Lecture Series/International Project Management Day, sponsored by Baldwin Wallace University and the Northeast Ohio Chapter of the Project Management Institute.
- Baldwin-Wallace University, 275 Eastland Road, Berea, Ohio 44017: November 7, Kerzner Lecture Series/International Project Management Day, sponsored by Baldwin Wallace University and the Northeast Ohio Chapter of the Project Management Institute. Register now.
- 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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