How many fires would you like to fight today?

How many emergency projects should you have?
How many high priority tasks should you have?
How many expedited orders are there on the shop floor?
How many "red" dots do you have on your balanced scorecard?
How many constraints do you have?

Do these questions sound familiar?  Can you come up with some more of your own?  It seems to me that they all boil down to the same thing:

How many fires do you want to fight?
Mt. San Miguel continues to burn.  San Diego wildfires.
Photo from slworking

I listened to Johanna Rothman's recent podcast on How Many Emergency Projects Do You Have? in which she answer that question for a project manager.  Much of her answer had to do with some version of, "If it's an emergency, it had better be your ONLY project."  And she talks about some useful strategies for preventing them.  I love her comment about having planned patch releases as an admission of bad project management.

I was struck by all the other ways this same question arises, whether in projects, on the shop floor, or at home.

In project management and as an organization, you don't want to be fighting ANY fires.  Sure, there is a process of prioritizing what needs to happen, and those priorities sometimes change with inevitable variation and the impact of Murphy's Law.  But the whole process has to be sensible and understood across the organization, so that re-prioritizations can happen the right way and not appear to be yet-another-emergency that people put on their pile of work that they ignore.

Immediate update: D'oh! Title spelling fixed.

2 Comment(s)

Of course, you may be a professional firefighter. In which case you depend on there being fires. Your emergency might be my bread and butter.

Stretching the wildfire metaphor further, maybe you should be purposely setting fires to burn away the undergrowth so that the next fire doesn't have to be a giant one. In most projects I've led, "fires" were often best left to themselves. Sooner or later they would consume all their fuel and burn themselves out.

But it does show why you should always have a firebreak around your office.

Jack Vinson Author Profile Page said:

Okay, we can stretch this fire fighting analogy way beyond its breaking point...

Fire fighters are paid to put out fires. But if you look at the "best" fire departments, they do a lot of outreach on preventing the situations that start the fires. Maybe they are paid to know about fire, both preventing and eliminating.

If you've got multiple fires, just like if you have an accident scene with multiple injuries, you need to assess the situation and treat the worst "fire" first. Get it out of the way and move to the next situation. This is similar in task management: get the task done that is preventing the project from moving forward, then then next, then the next. It does no good to start working on one task then switch to another then another, all the while the first task is still preventing the project from moving forward.

I'm sure we could come up with other stretchy analogies too.

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