Fire Drills – Why Typical Responses to Corporate Debacles Don’t Actually Put Out Fires

In my career of pattern-spotting and righting corporations, there are key behaviors to look out for when trying to improve your company’s success record for growth and change.

In my last article, I introduced this series of articles on why enterprise digital transformations fail or why corporations can’t and won’t change. In that first article titled “After 30 Years Fixing Doomed Enterprise Projects, This is What I Found“, I outlined what I call The “Problem” Problem or the simple idea that people frequently don’t know what problem they are solving when they set out to solve it, and therefore frequently fail.

As you would imagine, The “Problem” Problem will be the root cause of a lot of issues, but in my career of pattern-spotting and righting corporations, there are other key behaviors to look out for when trying to improve your company’s success record for growth and change.

By Timothy Myers

Today, we’re going to address how people react to problems. Often times problems present themselves as emergencies or “Fire Drills”. They come at us fast, usually on the heels of other problems or daily demands that give us very little time to think before reacting. Of course, I didn’t invent the term Fire Drill, but the reason we call out “Fire Drills” when fixing broken companies is that employees frequently don’t realize that how they respond to a problem is many times, as bad as the problem itself.

What Exactly is a Fire Drill?

The Urban Dictionary definition of Fire Drill is as follows:

Fire Drill: An exercise in futility. This occurs when a meaningless task is performed with no real valuable output. In short, it is a big waste of time.

  • “That company meeting was a real fire drill.”
  • “I don’t have time for your fire drills right now I have actual work to do.”

A Fire Drill happens when one is called upon to react in an emergency fashion, following predefined steps that lead you to an outcome that I guarantee you will not alleviate the possibility of that problem occurring again. Additionally, as you can see in the definition, people perceive Fire Drills as “a big waste of time”. How else would you identify and define a problem that you don’t understand? (NOTE The Problem Problem reference here)

If you have your boss, the CEO, and your customers all barking at you, your first reaction and desire is to make that all stop.

What my corporate fixing experience and pattern recognition have identified, is that if you follow the Fire Drill approach to problem resolution, I am 100% sure that you’ll face that same problem again. That is to say, when you are in Fire Drill mode, you are there to put out the fire, but not to identify the root cause – which increases the possibility of another Fire Drill again sometime soon when you least expect or want to face it.

When responding to a Fire Drill, by definition, you’re putting out the fire but not eliminating what caused the fire in the first place.

File Drill responses are typical “Problem” Problem responses. They “eliminate” the pain at hand, but they are very infrequently anchored in understanding the root cause in the first place.

As with any problem, the best course of action is to slow down, assess the situation, and identify the root cause of the issue. This may sound easy, but believe me, Fire Drills are the reaction to emergency problems where The “Problem” Problem is in full swing.

Putting an End to Fire Drills

When problems are presented in a rapid, emergency fashion, and you’re being forced to respond almost immediately, it’s important to understand The “Problem” Problem. Slow yourself down for a minute and think – before I respond, do I have a clear understanding of what’s going on here?

Server outages are often perfect Fire Drill case studies. Technology groups either buy or write software that sometimes goes sideways occasionally resulting in a website or mobile app or something not responding or being so significantly impaired as to render it useless. In these Fire Drill situations, a typical reaction is to “reboot” and then bring things back online.

This may sound wrong, but your first reaction MUST BE to understand what the problem is. Identify where the problem is coming from. Get your team organized around understanding the problem while it’s happening, gathering information while you can get data that will be hard to recover once you’ve rebooted. This approach allows you to diagnose and identify “the Actual Problem” so that you can ensure that it is fixed and that it does not occur again.

As a problem-solving organization, you need to create white space. Going slower DOES allow you to go faster when it is done thoughtfully and with a purpose. Tackle problems by identifying, root causing and diagnosing, and then eliminating them.

Going slower DOES allow you to go faster when it is done thoughtfully and with a purpose.

Take the extra time so that ultimately, you can reduce the problem count you’re reacting to, generating whitespace so you can breathe and think, resulting in better identification and diagnoses. The more problems you solve permanently, the fewer Fire Drills you’ll have, and therefore the better you’ll be able to solve real problems when they arise. Spending more time understanding the problem will result in you spending less time in Fire Drill mode and less time wasted on your problem resolution work.

What’s Next?

Understanding how people “frame” problems and how they react to problems are key and crucial to understanding this next topic.

In the next articles in this series, I’ll be writing about real-world business problems, how they were handled, the consequences of doing it wrong, and the rewards of doing it right. In these articles, I’ll cover two types of transformation initiatives that I think are relevant and great examples of why transformations fail. In these discussions, we’ll introduce how organizations are designed NOT to change or transform. And how, on the one hand, companies can be driving digital transformation but on the other, incenting people to stay the same. Confusing? You bet it is, but we’ll get through it.

If you are interested in learning how to successfully spot patterns that drive failure, follow my series and reach out with questions and feedback. As this series unfolds, it is sure to evolve and cover broader topics and the nuances behind each piece of experience.

If you liked this article and found it helpful, please consider sharing it so others can benefit from it and what I’m writing about as well. Click Follow in my profile to be notified of the continuing series on the subject and learn from what I’ve learned from over thirty years of being the adult in the room.

Tim Myers is Vice President of Strategic Alliances & Partnerships at Pointillist.

Photo by Jalen Hueser on Unsplash.

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