Pyromaniacs: Just Say "No" To Fire Drills
It comes from Michael Watkins, who used it the other day over on Harvard Business School Press Online when he asked Are You a Pyromaniac? Most managers, Watkins writes:
...struggle to stay focused on advancing their strategic priorities, and to avoid getting trapped in fire-fighting mode. So the last thing they need are bosses, peers, and even direct reports who make frequent, unnecessary declarations of states of emergency. These are the pyromaniacs - leaders with impulse-control issues who start the fires that waste so much precious time and energy in their organizations. For them, every day is a new crisis to be managed... and they want you to come along for the ride.
All it takes is a few key people behaving this way to drive everyone in the organization into a constant state of hyperactivity. Why? Because of the contagion effect. If a leader demands that his or her direct reports jump to attention and respond to the crisis-of-the-day, they have virtually no choice but to force their own direct reports into the same mode, and so on down the chain. Top leader behavior gets reflected down through the organization and everyone lurches from crisis to crisis.
Watkins' post reminded me that the one thing I have valued most in a manager over the years is the ability to avoid calling fire drills.
In one company I worked for, the difference was stark between working for my boss (VP level), who was seemingly impervious to getting sucked into firedrill mode, and two of his peers, who seemed to have their fingers ready to pull the alarm box on a whim. Their whims were typically generated by a comment made by the CEO or President who, sitting in a meeting pontificating, would make a some type of passing "wouldn't it be nice" statement.
Within minutes after the meeting ended, her direct reports would have their marching orders: Paul wants this, Joe wants that. Drop everything. We need it right away.
Never mind that five minutes after the meeting, neither Paul nor Joe would have been aware that they'd actually made any such request. Mattered not, in their aim to please, these VPs were off to the races. Presentation. Data sheet. Press release. Program. Plan. Web site. Restructured pricing. New product name. Better color on the logo. Stronger value propositions.
I'd watch my friends get into a dizzying frenzy to meet the new, meaningless deadline.
"You are so lucky," they'd tell me.
And I was.
My boss might be sitting in those same meetings, but just because someone senior made an offhand remark, Joel never took it as a divine message. If a senior manager made a request of Joel, he made sure that he knew exactly what was needed and when.
Thus, if my boss called a fire drill, he was able to be explicit about it. He would state clearly that he knew that his request was last minute and disruptive, but that it was real, where it was coming from and why.
On our fire drill days, my group might be putting in the same hours as those on regular fire drill duty, but getting the task done became energizing and we didn't mind doing it.
On one project, I was quasi-dotted-lined to the two primo pyromaniacs I mentioned above.
Days before a major product launch that I was captaining, one of these folks swanned into my daily status meeting and announced, show-off voce, "I just ran into Paul, and he said that he'd like us to add XYZ to the launch list." This was on a day when 50 or so people were collectively tearing their hair out trying to figure out how they were going to accomplish what was already on our task list. All we needed was Paul's X, Y, and Z larded on.
Usually I manage to deflect things like this with humor, but I was in no mood at that point.
I told this fellow that, at this point we should be taking things off our to-do list, not adding things on. And I also somewhat haughtily informed him that it was our obligation as managers to resist such requests.
I may have been a bit snotty, but I was right.
Sure, X, Y, and Z would have been nice, but they could wait.
I'm sure that many corporate fire drills occur in the same way. Mr. or Ms. Big says something and, eager to please, someone underneath them decides it's a command or that it's something they can do to gladden the heart of the boss. 95% of the time they probably don't even know that they've set off a firestorm.
Years ago, my friend told me a story about the fellow who'd been president of her company. This guy kept some kind of kinetic, pyramid-shaped devise in his office. When you turned the top of the device, however gently or slowly, it set off a whirling mechanism that accelerated as it made it's way down the pyramid. By the time it hit the bottom of the ladder, things were really whirling.
My friend told me that the president played with this device regularly to remind himself of the impact that an even minor, half thought out request, could have on the organization.
More senior managers should follow this lead.
Go take a look at Michael Watkins on workplace pyromania. His take is really good. And there's that glittering gem of a word. Wish I'd thought of it.