Firefighters Show You can Develop a Strategy While Fighting Fires
“Employees at all levels are too busy ‘doing their jobs’ and ‘fighting fires’ to devote time or pay heed to strategic initiatives.” It’s a common complaint. Academic literature has confirmed that ‘firefighting’ takes up much of the manager’s job and offers extensive advice on how to stop fighting fires – and even how to suppress the urge to do so.
Actual firefighters show us that responding to immediate exigencies and working toward a long-term vision of success are not contradictory. Even as they continued fighting fires, the fire community in the U.S. undertook a strategy that has achieved remarkable successes, cutting fires by half and reducing fatalities and damage. Identifying and targeting root causes, fire specialists established a lasting example for those looking to optimize not just existing processes, but also ultimate outcomes.
A turning point in the fight against fire loss was the publication of the report “America Burning” in 1972, which a later FEMA-chartered commission described as a “seminal effort in systematizing our nation’s efforts to address the fire hazard and the resultant loss of life and property. It was greeted with praise by all elements of government and the fire community.” Instead of focusing solely on improving capabilities for fighting fires after they had grown dangerous, the report called for a holistic approach that emphasized stopping fires as soon as possible or preventing them outright.
The essence of strategy is visualizing success and focusing on how best achieve it. Firefighters had to keep responding to incidents and continually improve how they did so, but they also adopted the high return-on-investment strategy of becoming fire preventers. As more members of the community bought into this approach, fires plummeted, and they now represent only 4% of fire service calls.
The lesson is clear: immediate concerns, no matter how pressing, should not crowd out work toward strategic objectives. The challenge for leaders and managers is to balance the two – to win the battle and the war.
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