Some of us have been in firefighting mode so long that getting far enough ahead of the fires to carve out some time to make sensible plans can seem like an unattainable goal. But by changing the way we deal with urgent problems, we can increase the likelihood of returning to routine. Here are four suggestions for breaking out of firefighting mode by changing how we address the fires.
- Triage the problems
- Instead of letting the order of discovering problems determine their priority, set priorities consciously. Designate a small team — two or three people are usually enough — to assign a priority to each problem as it arrives. Let them decide who is available to work each problem when its time comes.
- This is the group that must occasionally make the hard decisions to "let some fires burn." (See "How to Get Out of Firefighting Mode: I," Point Lookout for January 25, 2017) Such decisions will stick only if the members of this group have the respect of the team and their management.
- Empower the problem solvers
- Concentrating decision-making authority in the hands of a few carries a risk of creating bottlenecks, which then compromise a team's ability to get ahead of fires.
- With regard to problem solving, push decision making out onto a larger circle of problem-solvers by creating authority boundaries that enable more people to solve problems with autonomy. Some tactics that help:
- Specify classes of problem solutions that can be implemented at lower levels.
- Assign problems to the lowest level available team members who are qualified to deal with those problems.
- Provide expert advice and support to less-expert problem solvers rather than dedicating experts to solving problems.
- Search for common causes
- Sometimes Concentrating decision-making
authority in the hands of a
few carries a risk of
creating bottlenecksproblems that appear to be unrelated are actually different sets of consequences of the same underlying problem. When this happens, solving problems independently wastes resources. Worse, independent "solutions" are unlikely to succeed, and might even conflict.
- Keep in mind the possibility that a single issue can manifest itself differently in different contexts. Before investing significant time and resources in solving two problems independently, seek convincing evidence that they really are independent.
- Include firefighting in risk plans
- If your organization has much experience with firefighting mode, planning for firefighting risk can reduce the likelihood of fires, and reduce fire lifetime when fires erupt.
- A firefighting risk plan could include criteria for declaring and terminating states of fire danger. Three levels of fire danger are probably sufficient. Define routine procedures for each level. Examples:
- Level 3: Elective paid time off is suspended
- Level 2: Triage team is activated
- Level 1: Triage team deactivated and elective paid time off is encouraged
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 . Order Now! .
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More articles on Project Management:
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- In virtual or global teams, conversations can be long, painful affairs. Settling issues and clearing
misunderstandings can take weeks instead of days, or days instead of hours. Here are some techniques
that ease the way to mutual agreement and understanding.
- 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.
- Design Errors and Groupthink
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because their causes can be fundamental. Here's a first installment of an exploration of some fundamental
causes of design errors.
- False Summits: I
- Mountaineers often experience "false summits," when just as they thought they were nearing
the summit, it turns out that there is much more climbing to do. So it is in project work.
- On the Risk of Undetected Issues: II
- When things go wrong and remain undetected, trouble looms. We continue our efforts, increasing investment
on a path that possibly leads nowhere. Worse, time — that irreplaceable asset — passes.
How can we improve our ability to detect undetected issues?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 13: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: I
- To take the risks that learning and practicing new ways require, we all need a sense that trial-and-error approaches are safe. Organizations seeking to improve processes would do well to begin by assessing their level of psychological safety. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
- And on December 20: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: II
- When we begin using new tools or processes, we make mistakes. Practice is the cure, but practice can be scary if the grace period for early mistakes is too short. For teams adopting new methods, psychological safety is a fundamental component of success. Available here and by RSS on December 20.
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