Sometimes when the building is on fire...

Wouldn't it be great if "everything" worked out perfectly one hundred percent of the time... all of the time?

Well we know that doesn't happen; the same as we know that "everything" doesn't work zero percent of the time. On average I would say the range is somewhere between 60% and 80%; yes it may venture below or above once in a while, but this is a pretty good range on a daily basis. I also know I'm not presenting any science or hard data to support what I say, but I suspect you are probably thinking to yourself, "That sounds about right"

As I suggested, sometimes it goes "really right", and the celebrations and accolades commence... but sometimes it goes really wrong, and that is a much different story — Anger, blame, despair, confusion, finger pointing, did I mention anger, and of course frustration. Sometimes it is just so broken it can't be easily fixed.

A number of years ago, in one of my various professional iterations, I found myself involved with a very messy transition where two fundamentally different companies were coming together; different systems, different cultures, different products, and different leadership philosophies — There were many things going on and much to do. In one of the more trying periods of this transition, a leader was offering a perspective on the situation to his team and was trying to alleviate the growing state of frustration in the group. He was the king of the analogy, and as he was offering insight as to how to work through the situation he said,

"Sometimes when the building is on fire you let it burn and move on to something that you can fix."

By no means was he advocating giving up or not taking on the difficult challenges — What he was saying was sometimes when it is so broken (or dysfunctional), it is best to recognize it for what it is, minimize it's impact, and move onto something you can fix. By doing this you:

  • Identify and escalate the really big issues and problems in which good resources are being thrown after bad. This forces the need to step back and reassess the situation.
  • Keep people focused on situations that can actually be fixed, and in doing so "move the needle forward".
  • Prevent people from focusing on the negatives, and get them looking towards the positive energy of accomplishment.
  • Remind everyone that it's all about prioritization and almost always about the net gain. In the end some fires will rage on, but more will have been put out.

It also should go without saying that you should not play with fire unless you have to because if you aren't very careful you can get burned.

Prevention, as they say, is everything.