Stop firefighting in your business or organization.

As traditional organizations look to address the new competition and rapidly increasing pace of change in today’s competitive marketplace I see some fascinating struggles. Traditional markets are seeing unprecedented changes in their customer’s expectations. New competitors who are chipping away at their traditional profit centres. There are even changes in the employee base with the emergence of the millennial workforce and the retirement long-standing organizational leaders. The result is an emerging culture of firefighting which is a drain on everyone in the company. To successfully deal with the unprecedented level of change you need to stop firefighting.

Speed Matters – But Only If You Have a Clear Plan

To address these challenges, organizations are looking to increase speed, pace, and agility. They recognize that the demands of their customers, the competition from the new entrants, and the new workforce are demanding an ability to deliver change with pace. The change agenda is 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 agiler in their job doesn’t result in speed. This approach results in confusion and then firefighting.

Today’s Challenges Need New Approaches

I believe that incumbent industry leaders do want to be more agile and faster to market. But there are different challenges for incumbents when it comes to delivering with speed. There are entrenched cultures, existing process rigidity, and significant management overhead which doesn’t exist in the start-up economy. Some markets which have not traditionally faced competition also face the challenge of learning to compete. Understanding the importance of a business case and choices in investments are new when you haven’t had to compete.

The result of the drive for speed without a clear change agenda is that people are not aligned. Teams are not clear on accountabilities, and their scope of control and communication becomes confused. Because of the uncertainty of the approach, people are afraid to raise risks and issues. The lack of focus in decision-making on investments grows the pipeline of work without increasing the organizational capacity to deliver.

A Growing Backlog Drives Firefighting

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

  • Patching and tactical decision-making for fires in offices
  • Lack of visibility into real issues and a “hidden backlog” of problems 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 describes the results of this “Firefighting Syndrome”, caused by the growing backlog of problems and opportunities.

As you can see, as work increases without clear focus the crises take priority, and other important issues get parked. Solutions become tactical. Finally, there is a growing backlog of invisible issues and challenges which will slow the process going forward. Ultimately a lack of focus, while you deal with the crisis, creates more crises.

Firefighting creates more firefighting.

So how do we solve it?

Stop Firefighting

From my experience, there are three cornerstones to ending the firefighting cycle and success in the pursuit of speed in delivery. Those three core 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 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 a fundamentally incorrect statement. Apple has succeeded against the competition not by participating in a “features arms race”, but rather by having a relentless focus on design. Apple remains focused on the core features that they believe are most important to their customers. They are focused on executing them better than everyone else. That relentless focus is what has made Apple successful.

In many older industries, we have a culture of “everything and” decision making. In these industries, while there is an internal perception that decisions are made, those decisions are at such a high level that in fact no real decisions have been made. If you don’t get clear on a decision, “everything” is in scope “and” we reserve the right to add more as we discover it. With “everything and”, 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 eventually 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. It has to be as small as possible, focused on the features that are most valuable, and relentlessly managed. You have to ensure that unrelated or less valuable ideas don’t get bolted on and create complexity.

You need to be willing to say no to those ideas that are truly phenomenal, but which aren’t related to your objectives or 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 the Eisenhower Matrix:


The tendency when firefighting is to get stuck in the Important and Urgent box. It is exactly what Roger Bohn highlights in his graphic, resulting in an increasing pipeline of crises. We need to force our organizations to distribute organizational resources in more alignment to the four-box Eisenhower Matrix.

We still need to deal with the crisis at hand, but we need to focus on the problem at hand. We need to ensure that other unrelated challenges and opportunities don’t get included. Then we need to focus and deliver on the solution.

By leveraging focus, we allow ourselves to keep some of our organization resources available. We need to deploy those to attack the “important but not urgent” box of the grid. There, we focus on the overall system and change story. It is there that we can focus people on the next set of opportunities to help break the cycle of firefighting.

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 firefighting 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 will you know if you ever get there?

In many industries that have enjoyed a lack of competition, organizations have not had to implement basic business concepts like business casing, benefits tracking, and gating. Competition drives business effectiveness. Compete or die.

Those formerly less competitive industries now face new direct and indirect competition, and these basic tools need to become a core part of the “business as usual” process.

Before any new idea can become an initiative, it needs to have several key characteristics. Those characteristics create “clarity of purpose” which are required before earning investment in an idea.

  • What is the specific problem we are trying to solve or opportunity we are seeking 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 several others, but they lesson is to take the time upfront, before the initiative becomes a crisis. You need to work through these questions and drive for focus on every one of them. This is the important but not urgent work that needs to be occurring while others solve for old crises. You need to break the cycle and ensure that the next set of opportunities can avoid reaching crisis status.

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

The Firefighting Solution

The three key elements that are the cornerstones of breaking the firefighting cycle are focus, effectiveness, and clarity of purpose. They feed and support each other. Be relentless in creating focus to control the crisis. Allow yourself to free resources to work on the “important but not urgent” work. Create effectiveness by driving for clarity of purpose on your roadmap.

If your organization is spending all its time firefighting, you are working against the goal of speed, pace, and agility. Instead, you are creating an invisible pipeline of issues and problems which will grind the system to a halt. You are also running the risk of losing your top talent who will burn out, further hampering 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 firefighting cycle in your organization. Use the three cornerstones 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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