Project Management Firefighting: A Few Disctinctions
Over the years and certainly in the PM business, Fire Fighting has certainly gotten a bad rap. Deservedly so, if this is the only mode of operation a project manager has as a steady diet of reactionary decisions and actions causes unrest, chaos and instability in a project team. Yet, after three decades as a project manager of projects big and small…some highly successful, some less than, I am of the belief that Fire Fighting is a part of successful project management and here to stay.
When I use the phrase Fire Fighting, I am not speaking of Multi-Tasking, which has been debunked by many behaviorists, as the human mind is a mono-manic machine…ergo, one thing at a time…a topic for another day. My working definition of Fire Fighting is one of “targeted reactivity”. When deviations from the plan rise, particularly the “unknown unknowns”, successful and senior project and program managers will instinctively abandon the plan of the moment and react to these deviations in expectations in a resolute and focused manner. From the outside looking in, this may appear as the PM quickly veering off the road, may cause the purists a bit of angina, and very well may be disruptive (as projects are). The senior PM does not adopt this “targeted reaction” as their modus operandi, just a resolute response to serious deviations. As previously mentioned, if this is a steady diet, check the level of planning you have committed to.
Targeted reactivity does not justify less then rigorous planning. Sound execution planning develops a broad contextual understanding on which the PMs decision making, even on the fly, is naturally inclusive of key objectives. If a PM can’t successfully veer off the road (and right back on) to quickly and resolutely confront issues that challenge key objectives…the value planning and broad context is lost in non-action.
So, some days it’s plan the work and work the plan. Other days, it’s grab the buckets and douse the flames.