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:
- Team-Building Travails
- Team-building is one of the most common forms of team "training." If only it were the most
effective, we'd be in a lot better shape than we are. How can we get more out of the effort we spend
- Films Not About Project Teams: II
- Here's Part II of a list of films and videos about project teams that weren't necessarily meant to be
about project teams. Most are available to borrow from the public library, and all are great fun.
- 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.
- Accepting Reality
- Those with organizational power can sometimes forget that their power is limited to the organization.
Achieving high levels of organizational and personal performance requires a clear sense of those limits.
- How We Waste Time: I
- Time is the one workplace resource that's evenly distributed. Everyone gets exactly the same share,
but some use it more wisely than others. Here's Part I of a little catalog of ways we waste time.
See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 5: Downscoping Under Pressure: I
- When projects overrun their budgets and/or schedules, we sometimes "downscope" to save time and money. The tactic can succeed — and fail. Three common anti-patterns involve politics, the sunk cost effect, and cognitive biases that distort estimates. Available here and by RSS on October 5.
- And on October 12: Downscoping Under Pressure: II
- We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.
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