|FIREFIGHTING SCHOOL, a photo by wheelerdonna on Flickr.|
Here's the scene: You arrive at the office, coffee in hand, and head toward your desk when one of the employees in your department stops you. "Hey, we've got a big problem with the order for Bigco. I don't know whether we can fix it. Can you come over right now?"
Great. Another day in paradise, and you're off to fight the fire. It's lucky that you have the expertise and the political pull to fight this thing; you just might have a shot at fixing the problem before Bigco, your best customer, is impacted. But geez, this seems to be happening way too often. Your coffee will probably go cold before you have a chance to drink it this morning. Again.
What's causing the fires?
The assumption in your company might be that you have a people problem. They aren't paying attention, they don't care, they can't get it right to save their own lives - they, they, they. But this assumption is usually wrong. Sure, there might be an employee engagement problem, but that's a symptom, not the disease. You need to look upstream, and you'll find the real issue in
What? That's you? Sorry, but although your intentions may be wholesome, the buck stops with you. You need to be planning in both long term and shorter term time frames to make sure that today's activities are in alignment with your company's overall direction. You are also the creator and keeper of work processes, and if they are broken even the best people can't keep them going indefinitely without failure. And the manner in which you lead contributes to or detracts from employee engagement. If you intend to go in today and crack some heads over this latest brush fire you're likely to perpetuate the kind of secret keeping and frustration that will nearly ensure that you'll be dealing with this problem again. If you go in with the intention of finding and convicting the culprit you'll erode teamwork - unless they unite against a common foe, and that would be YOU.
If you don't want to live this way, with stress hormones coursing through your veins every day and a perpetual cup of cold coffee on your desk, it's time to take action. Do something differently right now. Nope, you don't have time to do it. That's a given, but it's not a valid reason not to act. Fire prevention time is time you will probably have to steal from something else that's pulling at you, but that is not really important to your results. Stephen Covey would call fire prevention activities "Quadrant Two" activities - not urgent but important. You have to choose to allocate time for them. Planning, relationship building, process improvement, capacity building - even rest and relaxation - are fire prevention activities.
OK, now for the tough question: Do you love fires just a little bit? Do they give you an opportunity to emerge from the same-old same-old and stretch your mental muscles, your problem solving ability, and your authority? You don't have to say so out loud, but if you recognize that you're a hidden pyro, understand that you're trading outstanding business results for short term thrills.
There's no question that when your energy is focused on the crisis du jour you don't have time to think, to plan, to change. In some respects these crises keep you where you're comfortable - exercising your judgment in areas where you know you have expertise and keeping you out of the unknown. The unknown can be a bit scary, ambiguous and unpredictable, but that's where you're supposed to be. That's why you get paid the big bucks.
You don't have to settle for life as a firefighter at work. Or at home. And if it's happening over and over again, understand that on some level you are choosing to be one.