Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 17, Issue 5;   February 1, 2017:

How to Get Out of Firefighting Mode: II

by

Last updated: January 17, 2021

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.
Flames

Flames can be beautiful. We can become fascinated by their beauty. So it is with "organizational flame." Some people actually enjoy emergencies.

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 bottlenecks
problems 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

Study the tactics and strategies of wildland firefighters and emergency incident responders. There's no need to re-invent what has already been invented. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Toxic Conflict in Teams: Attacks  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! .

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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

stacks of gold coinsComing January 27: Cost Concerns: Comparisons
When we assess the costs of different options for solving a problem, we must take care not to commit a variety of errors in approach. These errors can lead to flawed decisions. One activity at risk for error is comparing the costs of two options. Available here and by RSS on January 27.
A vial of COVID-19 vaccineAnd on February 3: Cost Concerns: Bias
When we consider the costs of problem solutions too early in the problem-solving process, the results of comparing alternatives might be unreliable. Deferring cost concerns until we fully understand the problem can yield more options and better decisions. Available here and by RSS on February 3.

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