Thursday, March 27, 2014

Weekly Tip; Treat unexpected, urgent issues like a real fire-fighter would

If you’ve ever experienced a major issue that needs urgent attention, you have probably seen a lot of people running around with bits of paper in their hands, in a panic, trying to fix the problem. The day-to-day work just stops, and for many is addictive as it gives them a thrill to their day. This is often called ‘fire-fighting’.

My tip this week, is treat unexpected, urgent issues like a real fire-fighter would. In summary;
  • Be prepared; (Have a structure for dealing with emergencies)
  • Plan your week with space for emergencies; (You still need to get your day job done!)
  • Be clear that you are dealing with an emergency; (Let people know what’s going on)
  • Treat the problem as a project; (It will save you time to pause for thought)
  • Keep your emotions in check; (Running around in a state of panic won’t help anyone)
  • Once it’s over, find out why it happened; (Make sure it never happens again, and share your learns with others)
  • Don’t cry wolf; (If you tell people it’s an emergency and it’s not, they will be less willing to help in future).
  • Reward root cause identification and counter measures, not heroics; (Fire-fighting is exciting, so you need to make sure that reward is focused on fire prevention)

In the workplace, the term fire-fighting tends to describe urgent, important, often unexpected and sometimes preventable work. I’ve not met anyone that hasn’t experienced this, and it is often to the detriment of your non-urgent, important work. Every heard the phrase, “We couldn’t get Project X finished on time because something mega-urgent came up…” It’s not unusual and almost everyone will have something like this in their lives, the call from the School because a child is ill, an employee stuck in traffic somewhere, a supplier not delivering something for an important order.

Some fire-fighting is actually preventable, the same issues occur over and over again because of a problem within the ecosystem of that activity. Stopping and fixing the problem might prevent the fire-fighting. Prevention (Continuous Improvement or Transformation activity) is better than a cure, but still, it’s unrealistic to think unexpected and urgent problems won’t happen. The way you deal with it can make a massive difference to you, your colleagues, your business, and most importantly, your customers, making you look like a competent professional (a real fire fighter) or an amateur running around with a bucket of water screaming ‘fire, fire!’.

So what can you do?

Be prepared;
Knowing that you might have something urgent to deal with this week can help you plan your week, so having a structure in place for you and/or your team on how you deal with unexpected, urgent issues can make all the difference. For example, would a fire fighter hear the alarm, slide down the fire poll and think “I wonder what I need to take with me?”. So, get your tools ready. Here’s what I suggest;

Plan your week with space for emergencies
If your workplace has lots of urgent issues on a regular basis, over-estimate your regular work, so when emergencies eat up half a day, then you still have time to complete your day job (fire-fighters still keep all their equipment maintained and manage to respond to emergencies – so can you!).  If you respond to a lot of urgent work, over estimating your work might help manage your agreements more effectively.

Be clear that you are dealing with an emergency
Real Fire-fighters have this a little easier, an alarm bell rings and they know they are dealing with an emergency, on the other hand office environments can be losing millions and it is plausible that nobody would notice for days… So it may seem obvious, but make sure the people you are enlisting help from are aware that it is an emergency. It doesn’t need to be dramatic, but being clear as to why it is urgent will help for example, “We have an urgent and important issue that needs to be dealt with today. If we do not resolve it, we are at risk of losing £1M of sales from Customer ABC”. Well that got my attention, how can I help?

Treat the problem as a project
If you just think of any emergency as just being a task or project that needs to be dealt with, because, er… it is. Difference is, you may need to come up with much of the information yourself in a short space of your time (do you think a real fire-fighter would run in to a burning building without a plan?). So no matter if you have minutes, hours or days, make sure as a minimum you have the following*;
  • You are clear on Scope; What you are dealing with, and why (Clarifying key stakeholders helps at this point)
  • Create a basic Plan; This is just who does what by when (My favourite rule for Project Planning)
  • Clarify how the team will Operate; During this, know when updates are required (Hourly Email updates might be necessary, daily team meetings might be needed, sub group meetings and so on)
  • State what Tasks need to be addressed immediately (What can the team walk out of the room and do right away!)

Keep your emotions in check
Emergencies tend to lead to high stress, this is the time to keep calm and stick to plan (fire-fighters need to keep their emotions in check as rash decisions can lead to injury of themselves or others). At this point it might be worth noting, that your emergency isn’t always someone else’s emergency. This is where you need to rely on your relationships you have forged with your peers to make sure that if you need help, they are willing, even if it won’t benefit them.

Once it’s over find out why it happened
You’ve come to the rescue, you’ve dragged a child from the building and saved their life… people are patting you on the back, all is great. But why was there a fire in the first place? Knowing the cause means you can prevent or reduce the likelihood of this happening in the future, this is the less exciting part, and certainly in the UK, most people sneer at the Health and Safety inspector, for ‘being a jobsworth’, even though they may have saved hundred’s of lives through accident prevention. Be careful here, the root cause is often not addressed, and the symptoms are just dealt with more effectively.

Don’t cry wolf
If you tell people it’s an emergency and it’s not. They will figure it out eventually and not take it seriously – there really has to be an unexpected, urgent issue. I have seen this before where people have said, “there is a £1M risk”, and after the third or fourth time of being used people are less sure that it’s a reality, where in fact, on close inspection, the issue was related to £1M total, and at worse, the problems may result in a late payment of the £1M, but not a loss of £1M.

Reward root cause identification and counter measures resulting from emergencies, not heroics
Using the imagery of a fire-fighter running out of a burning building, saving a young child from near death, I’m guessing for most folk is more exciting than the imagery of a Health and Safety inspector standing next to a set of cables and saying, “Those need to be sorted, they are a fire hazard”. The thing here is imagery, the real fire-fighter would have been reprimanded if saving that young child put them or their fire-fighting colleague’s lives at risk to do so. Thing is, often in the workplace, we reward the fire fighter for the save even if the behaviour was reckless (think about it – the stakes aren’t as high a fighting a real fire!).

So how, after this fire fight do you reward people? Well, business is different from real fire, sure, but keeping in mind how well the fire-fight was executed is one way but no glory, another way is to reward the identification of, and resolution to the root cause of the problem. So which would be best for future behaviour;

“Well done team, you managed to get a £1M customer contract together in one day – it normally takes 10! I know you worked through the night and pulled out all the stops”


“Well done team, a problem was identified with processing of customer contracts, and now you have put in steps to ensure that all contracts are produced in a timely manner. The customer told me today that they are so happy to be dealing with a professional company that makes good on its promises”

Okay, I will admit, the first one does sound cooler – but going with the second one, you might just get someone come along one day to you and say, “I’ve identified an issue in payment processing… if we solve it now, it will stop payments being incorrectly allocated in future…”, instead of, “We’ve incorrectly allocated Customer X’s invoice and they’ve been accidentally sent debt collection letters…”

*Note, this is based on the SPOT Meeting structure that is detailed in a Manager Tools podcast that can be found at

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