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Fire Fighting or Leadership: How do you spend your days?

“The world we have created is a product of our thinking; it cannot be changed without changing our thinking.”

—Albert Einstein

When an earthquake cut power to the Fukushima nuclear plant, diesel generators quickly kicked in, averting disaster—until the tsunami flooded out the generators. The tragic vulnerability of the plant can be traced to a few poor decisions around locations and waterproofing. While sloppy thinking and poor decision-making rarely has such disastrous consequences, it is disturbingly evident in many organizations.

At Kepner-Tregoe, we hear the claim, “We don’t have time to tackle issues in a proper, structured manner.” For those facing a backlog of overdue work, ambitious deadlines, and the desire to keep everything up and running, speed is key. Yet, when issues are addressed only partially or superficially, problems recur and new problems arise, creating a downward spiral that increasingly absorbs capacity and strangles the organization.

Fire-fighting behavior is typically the result of the perceived pressure from management to deal with problems quickly. With more problems than problem-solvers can address, a state of urgency prevails and problem solving degenerates to no more than treating symptoms. Before the first problem has been solved, the next is clamoring for attention, with executives increasingly embroiled in helping to fight the fires.

Do you spend too much time firefighting and too little planning, managing and leading? In order to break out of the downward spiral of firefighting, you need some clear thinking. To achieve this, there are three preconditions: time, attention and structure.

The first priority is to allocate sufficient time to those things that do get done, so they get done right. As they say, the devil is in the details.

The second precondition is to pay more conscious attention to what we do. Our conscious mind has the important task of curbing our intuitive impulses and correcting them when necessary. Only our conscious mind is capable of dealing with ambiguity, uncertainty and doubt, and of critically evaluating the quality of available information. The challenge is to avoid landing on the ‘OK plateau’, where people get that ‘good-enough’ feeling and ‘go through the motions’.

The third precondition is to add structure to the thinking. The strategy that we see people follow is often ad hoc and intuition-driven. Real structure and coherence are missing in the way things are tackled (the how), and most attention is given to the content (the what). However, it’s not about what you know, but what you do with what you know.

With time, attention and structure, a culture of firefighting can be transformed and a clear thinking organization created. It calls for strong leadership and a willingness to swim against the tide.

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