How to Stop the Fire Fighting!

Urgent vs. Important

I’m sure at some point in your career you will have either been trained on or read about personal effectiveness.  One of the common tools that is used in prioritisation is the “Urgency vs. Importance” graph that appears in Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.  The theory in Covey’s book is that most individuals spend far too much time dealing with the “important & urgent” tasks, which means they neglect other important tasks.  Over time, all tasks become urgent (as they weren’t dealt with beforehand), which means that the cycle of constant fire-fighting continues.

It strikes me that a similar pattern exists within some organizations, with regards to the projects that they choose to progress.  Focus, budget and time is spent on the projects that absolutely “must” succeed – those that are both important and urgent. This creates a real challenge – projects are neglected until there is a burning business need. Since the projects are urgent, there is an imperative to “just get going”, which means there is a temptation to skip early conceptual work. This creates a risk of significant problems down-stream, as the problem domain has never been fully defined or understood. The project is rushed, with a mantra of “just get going” and “deliver at all costs”.

The feedback loop

By the time a project is “Urgent”, the number of solution options are likely to be reduced.  Perhaps an organization is forced to deploy a tactical solution due to timescale, or perhaps it’s necessary to implement a much more expensive solution in order to meet deadlines.  More resource is thrown at the problem, and it is likely that a significant number of the organizations change team will be working on Urgent projects.

Feedback Loop : When organizations focus on urgent and important projects

A feedback loop that is difficult to break

A side effect of this approach is that the other important projects are neglected, because they aren’t yet urgent – there isn’t yet a burning platform.  Ironically, it is the non-urgent opportunities, needs and projects that provide hope for the future.  When an organization looks forward and addresses a non-urgent need, it has the luxury of time.  There will be more time to fully understand the problem, and ensure that the right strategic solution is chosen – i.e. step through a thorough business analysis process.

Organizations that don’t break this self-reinforcing cycle are doomed to fire-fight forever.

Take courage: Breaking the feedback loop

Whilst there is no doubt that “urgent & important” projects must be dealt with, organizations should consider paying sufficient attention to other challenges, opportunities and problems within their domain.  By responding to these challenges early (before they become urgent) will enable a much more thorough understanding of the problem, which may just lead to a far more innovative and customer centric solution.  This avoids the knee-jerk solutions that sometimes come from “urgent” projects that fight to deliver by fixed, immovable deadlines.  This might mean assigning and employing more change resource in the short term, but as the fires are put out (and more focus moves to calmer, less-urgent projects) the resource levels should balance out.

Organizations should also look at issues which are urgent but not important.  If they are important to somebody, then perhaps there is a new opportunity to be leveraged – a new product line leading to competitive advantage perhaps.

Ugent vs important

The key to breaking the feedback loop is focusing on a range of projects or issues

In order to break the perpetual feedback loop of fire-fighting, it’s necessary to dedicate more resource to up-front analysis in the short term.  This takes courage – the temptation will always be to put all resource in the “urgent” fire-storm, and managers are likely to come under scrutiny for positioning a portion of their staff on less urgent projects.  However, working this way will enable organizations to restore balance and look to the future.  Organizations that focus on projects earlier, will have far more opportunity to undertake robust feasibility and Enterprise Analysis. Taking the long view might not be easy, but it will pay dividends in the long term.  As Business Analysts, we should be lobbying our executive sponsors to take the long view!

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  1. @Laura – As a Business Analyst if I have to make something that is important,urgent, I usually tend to build a story around a given situation or impact and present it as a mini business case. Here is a real example(that happened a few months back):

    Problem: Two reports were redundant in the system we were migrating and never used by anyone. The overaching principle for migration was to make it like to like. No one was ready to make the decision to eliminate these reports, requirements had to be signed off in a week.

    1. Investigate – to ensure that you have numbers to go with. [I digged up info on when the reports were last used, and built up rationale for why these could go away]
    2. Socialize – discuss information with key stakeholders to get their buy-in [Spoke with product managers who were ‘supposed’ to use these reports]
    3. Summon – Involve the team and present the facts with a sense of urgency [Made a decision, and updated the requirements for sign-off]

    Just one possible approach. The approach can vary slightly depending on the context and problem that needs attention.

    @Irene – I totally understand your perspective; however I think we as Business Analysts we can introduce crucial data points in the decision making logical tree, that can hopefully pursuade the higher management 🙂


  2. Good article Adrian. I believe that is exactly what is happening in my company, but with recession beating them, I don’t see a way of those higher up in the hierarchy understanding the importance of ceasing the fire-fighting approach.

  3. Agree…great article. I’ve been working personally lately on my conflict between the important and the urgent (trying to eliminate the urgent by working upstream, so to speak). One thing I learned about myself (and this translates into my business) is that in order to get the important done, I tend to make it urgent! I set a deadline then stick to it! It was quite a fascinating insight especially when I realized that I think I learned this behavior from one of the mentor/executives I worked for a long time. He too would create urgency to ensure the important work got done. Similarly in Leading Change, Kotter talks about manufacturing a sense of (legitimate) urgency to rally large groups around necessary but difficult changes. Any thoughts on this idea of making the important urgent to ensure it gets attention?

  4. As always, great article, Adrian. Focus-on-the-most-pressing seems to be the norm for most organizations; mine is no exception. Like you point out it is crucial to step back, several steps sometimes, and take a look at the big picture and ensure the team has keen insights and understanding of the problem domain before treading onto a solution. That is why a lot of times focusing on the business case, key objectives, and process ramifications is paramount.

    In my opinion, I think it is the responsibility to provide all the information, and background needed for the business and the management team to get a correct perspective of the problem. Sometime the urgent may be leading to a certain failure, sooner. As a socially responsible BA(I just made up that term) we should focus on making team concentrate its efforts on what makes sense, and not on what is or will create havoc.

    If we don’t go this route my friend, as you allude, the ending of the fire fighting may seem like the light at the end of the tunnel, when its actually a fast approaching train!

  5. Hi Michelle,

    Thanks for sharing your experience. It’s reassuring to know that organisations can and do get it right. I really like the fact that anyone could submit an idea and they get feedback. I often think that the people who could *really* change an organisation for the better are those that are closest to the customer – people who work on the cash register or in the call centre. But they are rarely involved in projects directly! Having the opportunity to submit project ideas in the way you have described is very beneficial.

    Thanks again for sharing this.



  6. Hi Eric,

    Many thanks for your comments, and I’m glad you enjoyed the article. Your comment reminded me of an old saying…. “There’s never enough time to do it right, but there’s *always* enough time to do it twice!”.

    The reality of rushed decisions is building issues and compounding problems, and as you have quite rightly stated, sometimes the optimal solution won’t take any longer (if only people would take the time to do the analysis and consider it!).

    And I agree that breaking the mantra of “that’s not how we do things round here” is a challenge that I’d expect every BA has faced in their career!

    Thanks again for your comment.


  7. Michelle Swoboda says

    Adrian, great post. I do have a different story to tell. When I worked in telecommunications, the organization was well established with business analysis methodologies and business reengineering. They also welcomed suggestions by all employees and had a formalized tool so that people could submit ideas for projects.
    The projects were then reviewed by the Directors (two) and prioritized. Feedback was given to the person who submitted the idea, and if they were not moving forward there was an explanation given of why.
    We had a large group of business analysts based across the country. Each BA worked on at least two projects (some were small and had a short time frame) but some BAs would work on as many as 7 at a time. This allowed for balancing of downtime in other projects as not all kicked off at the same time.
    We all reported weekly to our manager with progress – we used a tool that was built by the company to chart our progress and comments and give a percentage complete that could then be reported on for the Directors and VPs.
    I found this to be a very satisfying way to work. We were able to deliver to the business the projects that they wanted within a timeframe that told them that we were listening. It gave the BAs freedom to submit project ideas and to prioritize the importance – which would then be reviewed by the same team.
    It also gave me the type of work environment that I love – busy! I loved working on 5 to 7 projects at a time. I found being involved with all levels of the business was exciting and rewarding. We had a success rate of 99% on the projects. Very encouraging to see a business that has reached the kind of maturity to make this happen.

  8. Eric Shayne Elliott says

    Good article. There are a couple of patterns that I have seen over and over in multiple companies during the fire fight of “get it done now…FAST!”. Here is an example of the first one:
    Dev :: “This is the quickest solution. I can get it done in X.”
    BA :: “Great. We all agree on the strategic solution. How long for it?”
    Dev :: “Quickest solution is X time…”
    BA :: “Gotcha! And the strategic one?”
    Sometimes the strategic or “right” solution has minimal variance in implentation impact.

    The second is the struggle to look past the way it has always been done because the focus is on the urgent. There are times when the strategic actually *is* the quicker implementation. But it is new so refactoring existing development or bending a new platform is the path selected instead of utilizing the strength of a new platform out of the box that actually is what is needed. Best wishes to all as you break the loop!

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