The endless cycle of fire-fighting

How many organizations spend a disproportionate amount of time in “putting out fires” of one sort or another? They always seem to be fighting off some looming disaster from a dauntingly difficult task with insufficient resources (time, money, information) and with dire consequences for failure. A frequent byproduct of continuous fire-fighting is the “tyranny of the urgent”: a near-panic-driven focus on addressing the near term — often with counterproductive consequences in the long term.

It’s probably too late to try the fire-extinguisher.

In conversation with a client who was fighting a figurative fire, I noted the importance of fully understanding the problem before attempting to address its troublesome symptoms. The CTO tersely shot back, “Dammit, we don’t have time to figure out what the problem is; we have to fix it, now!”

However, one of the fundamental principles of fire-fighting is to assess the nature of a fire before taking action against it. Spraying water on an electrical or chemical fire could quickly escalate a bad situation into an epic disaster. The specific remedial response must take into consideration what is on fire, how, where, and since when.

Furthermore, response to real-life fires doesn’t stop at fire-fighting but transitions into fire-investigation and fire-prevention. Identifying and addressing underlying root causes is crucial to avoiding recurrence. Organizations that claim that they don’t have time (due to their constant fire-fighting) to pursue such follow-up, are likely to be trapped in continual fighting of fires that could and should have been prevented.

Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.

Winston Churchill, paraphrasing George Santayana
Only you can prevent organizational fires.”

It’s possible to put an end to the self-fueling cycle of always having some fire to fight — but only by making (and fulfilling) the commitment to invest the time, money, and effort into appropriate fire-fighting, then into subsequent fire-investigation, and finally into effective fire-prevention.

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