Organizational Wildfires

Prioritize your wildfires or your entire organization will burn

In spring 2023, thousands of wild fires raged in Canada. Across much of North America, skies were covered in a haze and the smell of burnt wood lingered in the air. With so many fires and so few firefighters, tough decisions had to be made to determine which fires would be controlled and which would be allowed to progress unchecked.

Not all fires are the same. Some occur in remote regions, making fighting them difficult. Also, due to their remote nature, their impact to human life is minimal. Still other fires occur near population centers and risk lives and property damage.

Wildfires are a naturally occurring phenomnon. Many are caused by lightning strikes. Still others are caused by careless
activity of humans. Environmental conditions and climatic trends play a huge role, as well as land management practices.

Organizations encounter their own types of wildfires. When was the last time you had a panicked email from a colleague, a last minute project request from your boss, or a meeting appear on your calendar with short notice? All of these are organizational wildfires, requiring you and your colleagues to respond quickly or face consequences. Just like a real wildfire, the consequences will vary. If you don’t respond to that panicked email, nothing may happen. Or a deal could be lost. Reputations impacted. Or not responding quickly may mean your team has to work a long evening or weekend.

Organizations will have problems and the organization’s culture comes out in how it responds to them. Do you respond quickly and with overwhelming force to each one? Or, are you more selective, choosing which ones to let smoulder while you forcus your efforts on the more critcal and impactful issues? Be careful the precedence you set with your leadership, as your people will look to you on how to respond to these problems. If you respond to every single problem with the same intensity, you risk burning yourself out as well as your team.

Just like wildfires have both natural and human based sources, organizational wildfires have different sources. There will always be problems that occur. Some problems are unavoidable. Yet others are completely avoidable. Next time you resolve a wildfire, consider if the problem could have been avoided, either through improved risk management, improved training, better expectation setting, or some other means.

Remember, only you can prevent organizational wildfires.