firefighters-1430082As traditional organizations look to address the new competition and rapidly increasing pace of change in today’s competitive marketplace I am seeing some very interesting common struggles. Traditional markets and industries are seeing unprecedented changes to their customer’s expectations, now competitors who are chipping away at their traditional profit centres, and even changes to their employee base with the emergence of the new millenial workforce and the retirement of many of their long standing organizational leaders.

In order to address these challenges more and more organizations are looking to increase speed, pace, and agility as a core to their transformation. They are recognizing that the demands from their customers, the competition from the new entrants, and their new work force are demanding a new ability to deliver change with pace and the change agenda has become oriented around speed.

In many industries however, this drive for speed without a well thought out change agenda doesn’t result in the desired outcomes. Simply asking people to work differently, work faster, think differently, or be more agile in their work doesn’t result in speed… it results in confusion and then fire fighting.

I genuinely believe that these incumbent industry leaders do want to be more agile and faster to market, but they come with a different set of challenges than the new emerging competition and those other market leaders who are changing their customer’s expectation of experience and pace. There are well entrenched cultures, significant existing process rigidity, and often significant management overhead and hierarchy challenges which don’t exist in the start-up economy. Some markets which have not traditionally faced competition also face the challenge of newly understanding the importance of business casing and choices in investments which they may not have had to worry about previously.

The net result of the drive for speed without a well thought out change agenda is that people are not aligned in their approaches, teams are not clear on accountabilities and their scope of control, communication becomes confused because of the uncertainty of the working approach, people become afraid to raise risks and issues, and the lack of focus in decision making around investments simply grows the pipeline of work without increasing the organizational capacity to deliver.

When the pipeline grows and the pressure for pace increases there are several expected outcomes:

  • Patching and tactical decision making
  • Lack of visibility into real issues and a “hidden backlog” of issues that haven’t yet surfaced
  • Increasing levels of workplace stress and employee burnout
  • Departure of top talent who will inevitably seek opportunities in a more stable environment
  • Rapid and consistent escalation and “finger pointing”
  • Failures in delivery

Roger Bohn wrote about this issue in an article entitled “Stop Fighting Fires” in the Harvard Business Review as long ago as July 2000. He provided a simple visual that outlines the results of this “Fire-Fighting Syndrome” which is caused by the growing backlog of problems and opportunities.

As you can see as the work increases without clear focus (more on this in a moment) that the crises take priority and other important issues get parked (indefinitely), solutions become more tactical and patchwork, and in addition to the increasing pace of input from new problems and opportunities there is a growing backlog of invisible issues and problems which will work to slow the process going forward and create more crises.

Fire fighting begets more fire fighting.

So how do we solve it?

From my experience and the research I have been able to read on the topic I see three key cornerstones to stopping the fire fighting issue and moving toward success in the pursuit of speed and pace in delivery. Those three key tenets are focus, effectiveness, and clarity of purpose.


What focus means is saying no to something that with every bone in your body think is a phenomenal idea, and you wake up thinking about it, but you end up saying no to it because you’re focusing on something else. – Jony Ive

I recently heard a business leader comment to their team that the way to win in the new competitive and fast paced business environment was not to be like Apple, that it was not a features arms race that was going to drive success.

In the moment it struck me as an odd statement, and in retrospect I think it was actually a fundamentally incorrect statement. Apple has succeeded against the incumbent competition in their market not by participating in a “features arms race” but rather by having relentless focus on the core features that they believe are most important at the time and then executing them better than everyone else. That relentless focus is what has made Apple successful.

In many of our older industries we have built a culture of what I call “everything and” decision making. In these industries while there is an internal perception that decisions are made and priorities are set, those decisions and priorities are at such a high level that in fact no real decisions have been made and “everything” is in scope “and” we reserve the right to add more as we discover it. The result is that new opportunities wind up like a snowball rolling down a hill… as they gather speed they also gather more snow, grow in size, collect dirt and sticks, and ultimately become impossible to slow or maintain until they ultimately crash at the bottom of the hill causing enormous collateral damage.

I love Jony Ive’s definition of focus because it makes it clear that focus is hard. Focus is uncomfortable. Focus will keep you up at night. And focus is what will allow you to be successful. If we want to go fast we have to be supremely clear about what we want to deliver. That has to be as small as possible, focused on the features and experiences that are most valuable to the organization and the customer, and relentlessly managed to ensure that unrelated or less valuable ideas don’t get bolted on to create complexity.

You need to be willing to say no to those ideas that are truly phenomenal, but which aren’t related to your specific objectives and outcomes or your organizational priorities. Again I think Jony Ive says it best:

And the thing with focus is, it’s not this thing you aspire to, or you decide on Monday, ‘You know, I’m going to be focused.’ It is a every minute, ‘Why are we talking about this? This is what we’re working on.’ You can achieve so much when you truly focus.


Steven Covey outlined his ideas around Personal Effectiveness in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I believe those same concepts of personal effectiveness translate well to organizations in alignment with focus if you think about his four box matrix:


The tendency when fire fighting is to get stuck in the Important and Urgent box as was highlighted in the “Effects of Fire Fighting Syndrome” graphic from Roger Bohn which results an increasing pipeline of crises, but we need to force our organizations to distribute the organizational resources in more alignment to the four-box “effectiveness” grid above.

We still need to deal with the crisis at hand, but we need to be clear and focused on the specific problem at hand and ensure that other related and unrelated problems and opportunities don’t find their way into our thinking, then we need to expedite and deliver on that solution.

By leveraging focus we allow ourselves to keep some of our organization resources available, however, and we need to deploy those to attack the “important but not urgent” box of the grid where we focus on the overall system and change story, and where we can focus people on the front-end analysis of the next set of opportunities to help break the cycle of fire fighting.

The important but not urgent box includes such things as:

  • Clarity of organizational structure and purpose
  • Clarity of roles and accountabilities
  • Clarity of change agenda and change management
  • Strategy, ideation, conceptualization, and planning for the next set of opportunities

The last bullet is exactly what I mean by the third cornerstone of breaking the fire fighting cycle, clarity of purpose.

Clarity of Purpose

If you don’t know what your objectives and desired outcomes are and how you will measure success, how do you know you ever got there?

In many industries that have enjoyed a lack of competition (monopoly or oligopoly situations) organizations have not been challenged to leverage common business concepts like business casing, benefit tracking, and gating with the type of rigour that competitive industries have over the past 20-30 years. While companies in highly competitive spaces have become experts at holding business and technology leaders to their commitments, to clarity of success measurements, and to real quantifiable business cases these less competitive industries have been able to apply less rigour to this process.

As those formerly less competitive industries now face new direct and indirect competition these concepts and tools need to become a key part of the “business as usual” process.

Before any new idea can become an initiative it needs to have several key characteristics which need to be tablestakes to earning investment from the organization which I would characterize as an initiative’s “clarity of purpose”:

  • What is the specific problem we are trying to solve or opportunity we are trying to exploit?
  • What capabilities do I need to leverage or build to solve/exploit my problem/opportunity?
  • Who is affected by these capabilities, problems, or opportunities (internal, external, customers, suppliers etc)?
  • What are the specific benefits I expect to be able to gain from this (hard benefits like cost savings or revenue, soft savings like time or efficiency, and indirect benefits like customer retention or reduced attrition)?
  • Are there any regulatory, market, supplier, or customer dependencies or constraints that I need to be aware of that affect this problem or opportunity (like time constraints, seasonal constraints, lead-time to capabilities, or regulatory approvals required)?

There are likely several others, but they key is to take the time up front before the initiative becomes a crisis to work through these questions and drive for focus on each and every one of them. This is the important but not urgent work that needs to be occurring as others solve for the crisis so that you can break the cycle and ensure that the next set of opportunities through the execution pipeline can avoid reaching crisis status.

With the right people working with the right level of focus the front-end work can be done with some pace, but it should never be skipped or short changed from a quality perspective or you will ensure that you are simply feeding the fires are consuming your delivery teams on the front line.


The three key elements that I believe are the cornerstones of breaking the fire fighting cycle are focus, effectiveness, and clarity of purpose and they feed and support each other. Be relentless in creating focus to control the crisis and allow yourself to free resources to work on the “important but not urgent” quadrant and create effectiveness by driving for clarity of purpose on your roadmap.

If your organization is spending all its time fire fighting you are working against the goal of speed, pace, and agility by creating an invisible pipeline of issues and problems (in addition to the pipeline of opportunities). You are also running the risk of losing your top talent who will ultimately burn out which will further hamper your success in the future. Organizations that fight fires as a way of operating will not survive in the new competitive marketplace.

As a leader, you can not accept the fire fighting cycle in your organization. Use the three cornerstones outlined here to break that cycle and put your organization back on the path to success.

About Tim Empringham, MBA
Tim Empringham is a passionate advocate for Innovation in organizations of all sizes as a mechanism to drive growth, create uncontested market space, create new customer value, and drive efficiency into the internal organization. His focus is on disruption of thinking and markets through integrative thinking, structured Innovation frameworks, and leadership development of Innovation and Change leaders within the organization.

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