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 resourcesfire-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.
Projects 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 USD 19.95. Order Now! .
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More articles on Project Management:
- Remote Facilitation in Synchronous Contexts: II
- Facilitators of synchronous distributed meetings — meetings that occur in real time, via telephone
or video — encounter problems that facilitators of face-to-face meetings do not. Here's Part II
of a little catalog of those problems, and some suggestions for addressing them.
- Risk Management Risk: I
- Risk Management Risk is the risk that a particular risk management plan is deficient. It's often overlooked,
and therefore often unmitigated. We can reduce this risk by applying some simple procedures.
- Ground Level Sources of Scope Creep
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- Scope Creep, Hot Hands, and the Illusion of Control
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to prevent it. Two cognitive biases — the "hot hand fallacy" and "the illusion
of control" — might provide explanations.
- 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.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming May 29: Newtonian Blind Alleys: II
- Some of our decisions don't turn out well. The nature of our errors does vary, but a common class of errors is due to applying concepts from physics originated by Isaac Newton. One of these is the concept of spectrum. Available here and by RSS on May 29.
- And on June 5: I Could Be Wrong About That
- Before we make joint decisions at work, we usually debate the options. We come together to share views, and then a debate ensues. Some of these debates turn out well, but too many do not. Allowing for the fact that "I could be wrong" improves outcomes. Available here and by RSS on June 5.
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