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 USD 19.95. Order Now! .
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More articles on Project Management:
- Geese Don't Land on Twigs
- Since companies sometimes tackle projects that they have no hope of completing successfully, your project
might be completely wrong for your company. How can you tell whether your project is a fit for your company?
- Project Improvisation and Risk Management
- When reality trips up our project plans, we improvise or we replan. When we do, we create new risks
and render our old risk plans obsolete. Here are some suggestions for managing risks when we improvise.
- Durable Agreements
- People at work often make agreements in which they commit to cooperate — to share resources, to
assist each other, or not to harm each other. Some agreements work. Some don't. What makes agreements durable?
- More Limitations of the Eisenhower Matrix
- The Eisenhower Matrix is useful for distinguishing which tasks deserve attention and in what order.
It helps us by removing perceptual distortion about what matters most. But it can't help as much with
some kinds of perceptual distortion.
- Why Scope Expands: II
- The scope of an effort underway tends to expand over time. Why do scopes not contract just as often?
One cause might be cognitive biases that make us more receptive to expansion than contraction.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming March 20: Stone-Throwers at Meetings: I
- One class of disruptions in meetings includes the tactics of stone-throwers — people who exploit low-cost tactics to disrupt the meeting and distract all participants so as to obstruct progress. How do they do it, and what can the meeting chair do? Available here and by RSS on March 20.
- And on March 27: Stone-Throwers at Meetings: II
- A stone-thrower in a meeting is someone who is determined to halt forward progress. Motives vary, from embarrassing the Chair to holding the meeting hostage in exchange for advancing an agenda. What can Chairs do about stone-throwers? Available here and by RSS on March 27.
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- Get all of the first twelve years (2001-2012) in The Collected Issues of Point Lookout (PDF, USD 28.99)
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- 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.