Death by fire drill

Stop what you’re doing. This is an unplanned break in your otherwise productive day. Whatever you had going on today, is nahgoannahappen. Your job depends on what happens next. And by that we mean your life depends on it.

In my experience, there are two kinds of workplace fire drills: the unavoidable kind and the dysfunctional kind. Unavoidable fire drills are the ones that you and the people around you have very little control over. Maybe they originate from some power figure in the organization (e.g. the CEO) or are the result of some external opportunity or threat. If they are infrequent, these kinds of fire drills can actually wind up be a good thing for the organization.

The good side of fire drills

During a fire drill, a clear purpose emerges: “Complete this project by the deadline at all costs.” For anyone who dislikes ambiguity, this is refreshing. Problem solving skills are tested, people prove their worth in a concrete way, and heroes are born. Process flies out the window and you’re challenged to think nonlinearly. You think, “How can I help ensure that this project gets done faster? What can be skipped? What can be approximated? What can be postponed for later?” Through this process, new ideas for doing things are discovered.

You pull together as a team and work cooperatively long into the night while nibbling on shitty pizza. You come in early after a short rest and share bleary-eye gazes and wry smiles with your co-workers. You feel like part of a team more than you did previously. And these are all things that everyone craves from their work: a sense of purpose, feelings of belonging, and making a difference. But if fire drills become the organization’s modus operandi, that can rob it of its potential.

The bad side of fire drills

Fire drills become dysfunctional if they become part of the way that the organization gets things done. Employees start living unbalanced lives. There’s a sudden scarcity of the things that were feeding their spirits like time with their kids or exercising. Their lifestyles are out of whack. Bitterness ensures. Then comes blame, resentment, and burnout. Employees become less invested in the organization, they stop caring, and the organization loses its mojo. It becomes a place where people are not mapping out the future because they are forced to stare intently at the present.

How to avoid unnecessary fire drills

If you are unhappy about all of the fire drills in your organization, there are a few things that you can do to try and prevent them.

  • Ask why there’s an emergency: Sometimes there really is no cause for a fire drill. Someone just wants to leverage the expediency of the fire drill process to make themselves look like a star. Probe into this question a bit and see what you discover. You don’t have to sound accusatory, just be curious.
  • Ask who started the emergency: Is there a pyromaniac in your midst? Did someone fall asleep with the proverbial cigarette hanging dangerously loose from their mouths? Sometimes people accidentally let things fall through the cracks until their external deadline rears its ugly, unexpected head. What’s worse is when the source of the emergency winds up looking like the hero while everyone around them is still choking on the fumes of their incompetence. They will try to hide their error and your job is to bring it to the fore, analyze it, and try to correct for it next time.
  • Discuss the damages: Ever wonder how much a fire drill costs an organization in resource costs? How many times have you seen $10,000 meetings full of people who could be doing more important things? Fire drills rob the organization of quantifiable resources. Calculating those costs and discussing them with others has a way of changing that behavior.
  • Discuss fire drill prevention: Many times people are just moving from one fire to the next and not taking a step back to identify the source. When I was the Creative Director at CBS Interactive, we discovered that the young Account Coordinators who liaised with clients simply were not being trained to manage their projects in ways that would circumvent the fire drills. We implemented a simple training program that helped turn the knob on fire drills from 80% to 20% of all projects. This allowed my team to focus on projects that truly moved the needle.

Fire drills do have their merits, but it’s the big, meaty projects that push the organization forward. Those projects require time, planning, and discipline. It’s up to all employees to prevent constant fire drills from derailing meaningful projects or they risk accomplishing bupkis.

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