Fire Prevention, Not Fire Fighting

I know, the title of this post seems obvious, right? Every time I see this phrase I think, “yeah no kidding genius” yet every day in the work place I see the exact opposite behavior. I have worked in the strategy space for years now, both on the IT and corporate side of the fence, so maybe understanding this concept of prevention verses fighting just comes more naturally to me. Yet, is it really so hard to comprehend? My theory is that large companies are more prone to this reactive mentality than smaller more nimble ones. In a lot of ways this makes perfect sense. The more ‘trees in the forest’ the harder it is to see the entire landscape, but this does not imply that it is impossible to set the culture, even for a large organization, to focus more on prevention techniques.

Many cultures find themselves in a firefighting approach because of what I call a ‘culture of busy-ness’. They have gotten so focused on day-to-day work and issues and are so heads down that they no longer know what they are working towards. Their goal has become about just blocking and tackling and reacting to every fire that pops up. This isn’t necessarily a problem for front line employees. It’s when the leadership starts to get caught up in this focus as well. Everyone is heads down dousing each fire and no one is lifting their heads to see if all this activity is actually keeping the organization on track towards its long-term destination. Meanwhile everyone is busting their humps each day as the company swerves off course. Employees become more and more agitated as they can no longer see where all their hard work is paying off. No one is there to help them see how they fit in because no one really knows. Everyone just keeps plugging away running from one fire to the next. Meanwhile, customers become more disenfranchised, employee turnover increases, sales slip, service delivery suffers, product quality and innovation stifles and company morale hits the crapper.

The crazy thing is that this isn’t a difficult scenario to avoid or even fix, yet reactive cultures (the bad or broken ones) continue to drag on the company like driving around with the parking brake on. So what can be done?

Let Leaders Lead – Notice I did not say let commanders command. Commanders bark tactical orders that are short-term in nature and lack any clarity to overall outcome desired. True leaders are able to see the big picture and articulate how their team, department, division or company fit into that big picture. They can set a vision for where the group needs to get to and then provide direction for the work that needs to get done to get there. They have the ability to shift between day-to-day operational activities and keeping an eye on the long-term vision. These are people you want leading your operational organizations. Technical expertise is great, but moving someone to leadership for this reason alone is a recipe for long-term issues.

Measure What You Mean – So often I watch organizations put time and effort into developing a beautifully thought out strategy that just withers on the vine. One of the big reasons for this is because no thought is put into how employees are measured and rewarded. If you are planning on implementing a strategy you better put just as much energy into how you will align your resources to make it a reality. A big part of this is goal setting for departments, teams and employees and making sure that when you sit down with them to develop the goals they will be measured on, there are at least some focused on moving the organization along the strategic path. The alternative is that goals become focused on reacting to issues and rewarding the ‘heroes’ of the company. If you reward them for being proactive, chances are that is where they will focus their energy.

For God’s Sake Communicate! – Early and often. I worked for a company once and we were trying to impress on the senior leadership the need to have some communication plans and training in place to rollout the new strategy. What we heard from them was “that’s not necessary, we have smart people, they’ll get it.” We continued to push on this but to no avail. I heard recently, not surprisingly, they had to abandon the strategy because they couldn’t get buy in across the company. The trust in the employees ‘to get it’ was a nice sentiment, but it cost them a lot of work and millions all because they didn’t want to deal with putting the time in to help everyone understand how they fit into this new picture. If this isn’t made clear individuals start guessing at what is important which usually manifests itself in tackling tactical issues. Communications should be constant and continually drive home the goals of the organization and should come in many forms including face-to-face, electronically, etc. Doing so clarifies the common priorities that everyone should be setting as a baseline. Without communications individuals quickly lose track of what these priorities are and fall back to the day-to-day issues.

Know When to Let Something Go – I live in Colorado, so I hear a lot about fighting forest fires. I grew up in Illinois, so this practice is fascinating to me. When you listen to how firefighters strategize getting a wild-fire under control you hear them talk about what they are going let burn so they can make overall progress with the total inferno. They understand that if they tackle each smaller fire individually they will never get their resources around the big fire. Many organizations get mired in sunk costs in much the same way. Even though a well laid out strategic plan is practically screaming to drop some projects, investments, processes, etc. they just can’t let them go. Usually because so much time, energy and other resources were initially put in to get them there. But if these things are doing nothing more than acting as an obstacle to your long-term success they will just end up costing you more down the road. This inadvertently communicates to the employees that priorities don’t matter and we must spend our time trying to juggle everything rather than just the important things. Knowing when to shut down a project, or abandon a process, dropping a failing product, or cutting loose a non-strategic investment will unencumber your long-term strategic success and act as a signal to your employees where they need to focus.

Being proactive doesn’t happen automatically. It comes from the conscious efforts of a company and its leaders to understand the importance of being proactive. The goal for any culture should be to cultivate a competency of fire prevention rather than firefighting. Will fires still pop up? Sure, but they shouldn’t drive the decision-making of the company.

About the author: Heath

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