Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 17, Issue 4;   January 25, 2017: How to Get Out of Firefighting Mode: I

How to Get Out of Firefighting Mode: I

by

Last updated: August 8, 2018

When new problems pop up one after the other, we describe our response as "firefighting." We move from fire to fire, putting out flames. How can we end the madness?
Firefighter lighting grass using a drip torch

Firefighter lighting grass using a drip torch. This photo was taken in March, 1950, on the occasion of the first controlled burn at the Pipestone National Monument in Minnesota. Drip torches are also used in lighting backfires, which are helpful in controlling wildland fires in many kinds of terrain. A backfire consumes fuel that lies in the path of the main fire. When properly set, the air rushing in to feed the main fire directs the backfire toward the main fire. When the backfire and main fire meet, the main fire has no place to turn for fuel, and the two of them annihilate each other.

Setting a backfire in the business context when in firefighting mode would mean shutting down or suspending less-than-critical efforts before they develop problems that would require management attention.

Photo courtesy U.S. National Park Service.

The Google dictionary definition (OxfordDictionaries.com) of firefighting in business is incomplete. It defines firefighting as, "the practice of dealing with problems as they arise rather than planning strategically to avoid them." I don't know about you, but that sounds a lot saner that what I've experienced. I've found it to be more like: "the practice of applying temporary fixes to urgent problems, rather than resolving them permanently, whilst being continuously interrupted by other problems, many of which had received temporary fixes earlier, but which have erupted into flame again." Avoiding problems strategically is indeed a preferred alternative, but in true firefighting mode, we have no time for that. We just smother the flames as best we can and move on.

Planning strategically to avoid problems is a way to avoid falling into firefighting. But in firefighting mode, by definition, we can't plan strategically, because we're too busy fighting fires. So how do we get out of firefighting mode once we're in it?

Begin by realizing that when any part of the enterprise finds itself fighting fires, something about the enterprise culture is likely among the root causes. And unless the enterprise culture is your responsibility, don't try to change the culture. We never do well when we try to do someone else's job. (See "Stay in Your Own Hula Hoop," Point Lookout for June 27, 2001, for more) So what can we do?

The general strategy is to be the best, most effective firefighter you can be. Let's begin with some tactics you can use immediately.

Plan the next 30 minutes
In a In a fire-ridden environment,
making longer-term plans is a
waste of time and resources
fire-ridden environment, making longer-term plans is a waste of time and resources. The general chaos will undo any longer-term plan before the email or text announcing the plan even gets read.
Having no plan at all is trouble too; so do make plans, but only for the immediate present. Example: for meeting agendas, allocate time to each item. Another: Decide to spend the next 15 minutes focused on just this one problem.
Let some fires burn
Firefighting mode persists, in part, because the people fighting the fires can't get far enough ahead of the fires to extinguish them. Trying to extinguish all the fires thus prevents extinguishing any of the fires.
Focus your resources. Free up resources, and reduce the risk of additional distracting fires, by dropping objectives that have limited impact on other objectives. If any of these objectives are already in flames, let 'em burn if you can.
Set backfires
Wildland firefighters sometimes set backfires to deprive the wildfire of fuel, thus limiting its spread.
Take a hard look at objectives that seem to be progressing, but which aren't absolutely essential. Regard them as fuel that could burst into flame at any moment. By abandoning these objectives proactively, you limit the chances of additional fires, and free up resources for fighting the fires you already have.

We'll continue next time with some tactics that require just a little preparation.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: How to Get Out of Firefighting Mode: II  Next Issue

How to Spot a Troubled Project Before the Trouble StartsProjects never go quite as planned. We expect that, but we don't expect disaster. How can we get better at spotting disaster when there's still time to prevent it? How to Spot a Troubled Project Before the Trouble Starts is filled with tips for executives, senior managers, managers of project managers, and sponsors of projects in project-oriented organizations. It helps readers learn the subtle cues that indicate that a project is at risk for wreckage in time to do something about it. It's an ebook, but it's about 15% larger than "Who Moved My Cheese?" Just . Order Now! .

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Project Management:

Hurricane Warning flagsDeclaring Condition Red
High-performance teams have customary ways of working together that suit them, their organizations, and their work. But when emergencies happen, operating in business-as-usual mode damages teams — and the relationships between their people — permanently. To avoid this, train for emergencies.
Dunlin flock at Nelson Lagoon, AlaskaNonlinear Work: Internal Interactions
In this part of our exploration of nonlinear work, we consider the effects of interactions between the internal elements of an effort, as distinguished from the effects of external changes. Many of the surprises we encounter in projects arise from internals.
The Great Wall of China near MutianyuScope Creep and Confirmation Bias
As we've seen, some cognitive biases can contribute to the incidence of scope creep in projects and other efforts. Confirmation bias, which causes us to prefer evidence that bolsters our preconceptions, is one of these.
Illustrating the concept of local maximumFalse Summits: II
When climbers encounter "false summits," hope of an early end to the climb comes to an end. The psychological effects can threaten the morale and even the safety of the climbing party. So it is in project work.
Terminal 3 of Beijing Capital International AirportRisk Creep: I
Risk creep is a term that describes the insidious and unrecognized increase in risk that occurs despite our every effort to mitigate risk or avoid it altogether. What are the dominant sources of risk creep?

See also Project Management and Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

An unfinished building, known as SzkieletorComing September 18: The Planning Fallacy and Self-Interest
A well-known cognitive bias, the planning fallacy, accounts for many unrealistic estimates of project cost and schedule. Overruns are common. But another cognitive bias, and organizational politics, combine with the planning fallacy to make a bad situation even worse. Available here and by RSS on September 18.
The Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill BridgeAnd on September 25: Planning Disappointments
When we plan projects, we make estimates of total costs and expected delivery dates. Often these estimates are so wrong — in the wrong direction — that we might as well be planning disappointments. Why is this? Available here and by RSS on September 25.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Race to the South Pole: Lessons in Leadership

On 14The Race to the South Pole: Lessons in Leadership 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:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power

Many The
Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople 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.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.