Corporate fire fighting

What does it mean to you ?

A sense of being busy, on the run, panic, stress, rush of adrenaline, hardly any time to stop and think, and of course, heroic efforts to douse fires that seem to be springing up everywhere. If any or all of these sound familiar, you aren't alone. Many organizations have integrated fire fighting into their very DNA, so much so that you could be considered a slacker if you appear calm and unruffled. Lack of time is often cited as a reason for short-circuiting adequate planning & risk management. There is never enough time to do the job right, they say. We'll somehow have the time to fix issues and patch things up later. The constant busy-ness and worry take the focus off of prevention of fires and towards combating them.

When fighting fires is a regular part of work, often times organizations tend to reward and recognize the heroes, the ones who are adept at dousing these fires. It is useful to remember that what you reward is what you will get more of. Also, bear in mind that in a corporate setting, some of the best firefighters could be the best arsonists too. Regular rewards and recognition of the heroes who fight fires rather than the ones who have not caused any fires can quickly lead to a flaming inferno that's hard to manage.

What ? This doesn't happen ? Look at your group's reward structure. Whom do you recognize and reward - the individual who works all night to meet a deadline while producing average quality code, the individual who stays up late to fix issues … in code they themselves have produced or the individual who delivers solid output that has been adequately tested within the given time ? It is easy to miss a hard-worker who delivers without much fanfare while doing the right thing.

When faced with a fire, take a step back to see the big picture. It is easy to miss the forest for the trees here. Divide your resources – it is not advisable to pull in all your resources to  fight a fire unless the situation truly demands it. Some project staff need to be insulated from firefighting so they continue to deliver on critical areas. Some fires may not really need to be doused. Evaluate the consequence of letting a fire burn. What is the opportunity cost of involving your resources to fight the fire versus letting the fire burn. Whom does the fire impact most and how important is it to them ? Such and related questions should help you create a strategy to fight your fire.

While it is strongly recommended that we prevent fires, there will be emergency situations. What we must do is to perform a thorough post-mortem of each fire, analyze its cause, the factors contributing to the fire, cost of the fire in terms of both the damage as well as effort involved in fighting it and steps to prevent such a fire from happening again. An often cited requirement for preventing fires is – more time. We are very busy fighting fires now. Give us more time and we will work on preventing fires. Frankly, that most often does not work. Work and busy-ness have a tendency to expand to fill any available time.