Where There’s Smoke There’s Fire – Laura Dribin

Give a man a fire and he’s warm for the day. But set fire to him and he’s warm for the rest of his life. Terry Pratchett

Everyone wants to be a hero.  Children dream of joining the fire department to fight fires or police department to save a life.  We love heroes.  We give them awards, we sing their praises. 

Even when a business runs into problems, they look for some employee(s) to be heroic and save the day.  And often this is how large strategic initiatives are pulled out of the flames.  In fact, some companies are always in firefighting mode using their heroic employee(s) to “fix” the fires. 

Superhero Business Woman with tablet

Fighting fires is no way to run a business.  Putting out a fire is way more expensive than implementing safe consistent practices that utilize fire alarms and fire extinguishers to minimize risk.  Putting out fires is tremendously disruptive and the after affects can linger long after the fire is extinguished. 

Let’s use a scenario.  You have a wood burning fireplace in your house.  There is no covering over your fireplace to keep the cinders contained. One cold night, you decide to enjoy the warm, cozy fire, but you leave your house to grab some brandy for a hot toddy. While you are out, the cinders spread, start a fire and burn down your house.  Fire fighters come and put out the fire. There is quite a bit of damage.  No worries, your insurance help you to rebuild.  So you build a new house with a new wood burning fireplace. Do you use a cover to protect your house?  What about fire extinguishers or smoke alarms or escape plans for your family?  Or do you rely on your heroes, home insurance and fire department, to mitigate all risks?  It doesn’t make sense, right? So what sense does it make for a business to consistently rely on heroes to save the day?

I looked up the job description for a fire fighter and what I found was extremely interesting.  Out of 10 task descriptions, only 1 actually forces them into extinguishing a fire.  The remaining nine descriptions involve best practices, governance, continuing improvements and education.  http://hiring.monster.com/hr/hr-best-practices/recruiting-hiring-advice/job-descriptions/firefighter-job-description.aspx  

Firefighter and Lieutenant helmets

So why do so many companies rely on heroes to fix their problems? I know that every now and then, there is a fire in a company that needs everyone to scramble and may need that hero to successfully complete that task. But too many businesses make this the norm.  I believe that heroes become a crutch for businesses and a symptom of an organization in a reactive mode (of firefighting) rather than a proactive mode of driving the company’s direction. 

As I speak with my clients and potential clients, I am no longer surprised when someone conveys to me that their best project manager is hero-like.  I am often pointed to the heroes that seem to excel at getting the job done right.  The project they are running has a big issue that may result in the project failing and the “heroic” project manager ends up pulling the project out of the burning building. 

I am not a believer in heroes in business.  Too often I find that the “hero” might have saved the project from failure but what isn’t addressed is that they also may have caused the fire in the first place.  Leadership sees that the hero knocked down walls and moved mountains to fix the problem and saved the day.  Yet, at the time that the hero is saving the day, no one is realizing that if the hero had worked through their preventative process (better planning process and methodology), the problem might not have occurred.  (Remember, fire fighters have 9 process improvement tasks and only one firefighting task.)  When heroes are fighting fires, often someone will get burned.  Long hours, stressful periods of time, finger pointing….

One of the largest programs that I ever worked on earlier in my career was an eye opener.  The program was huge and budgeted at $100 million.  We worked hard to properly plan and then proceeded to a risk management plan.  We came up with contingency plans for the risks that seemed most likely.  We even put cut-over dates in our plans for the contingency plans.  Fast forward, this huge complicated program had some smoke alarms going off but any major fire was prevented by switching directly to the contingency plan with little fanfare.  If something happened, we already had worked through how we would deal with it.  (This versus the hero mode of something happening and then all hands on deck to try and figure out how to address it while the fire was burning.  )   In the end, one of the key stakeholders said that this program was so easy.  They didn’t see why they needed a program manager.  This effort was non heroic in their eyes because fire prevention is less visible than firefighting.

A well run organization should not be in a constant need for heroic actions.  It should be striving for a process that minimizes the need for heroes.  Consistency in how a company delivers.  Governance, process, thoughtful strategic execution.

So long story short, I challenge all C-Level executives out there to make a resolution for 2017 that you will focus more on creating best practices around how you deliver value.  You may be surprised as to your value proposition at the end of the year. Think of your business mascot as Smokey the Bear and remember, “Only YOU can prevent forest fires!”

Better a thousand times careful than once dead.   Proverb

 

 

One thought on “Where There’s Smoke There’s Fire – Laura Dribin

  1. Love this essay and completely agree with the sentiment expressed – real heroes are the ones PREVENTING a project from going into a full emergency-scrambling mode and investing into contingency planning pro-actively.

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