A Daily Dispatch from the Front Lines of Leadership.


When Fire Drills Happen Every Day

The need to rally all resources with “all hands on deck,” as they say, happens on occasion to even the most organized leaders. But when the so-called fire drills happen with frequency on a team, something essential is amiss and the consequences can be severe. The continual thrash created by last-minute work and the rush to complete tasks and projects demoralizes a team and burns people out.

Fire drills reflect a leader’s inability to manage the work of others. Largely borne out of disorganization, a mad rush to complete a project or work product suggests poor planning on the part of the leader.

Prioritizing projects and tasks, creating a timeline for delivery, and checking in early on progress usually prevent the fire drill before it happens. The best leaders set advanced deadlines where review can occur well ahead of the need to rush as the clock ticks down. 

Unexpected requests that are deemed essential to fulfill can occur on occasion, but a team that faces a last-minute push daily or weekly is a telltale sign a leader is underwater and not up to the job.

A fire drill mentality is most common in organizational cultures where leaders are unconcerned about the well-being of their colleagues and treat them as tools at their disposal. Combined with a perfectionist tendency to continually improve a work product beyond all reasonableness, fire drills can infiltrate a culture and cause massive havoc in the lives of those who work there.

When it comes to deadline pressure, the greatest sign that leaders truly respect the efforts and time of those who work hard to deliver for them occurs when they emphasize and reward preparation. Team members that know what is ahead of them and are given the time to plan accordingly to prevent the alarm of last-minute sprints. In well run organizations, this is second nature. The leader’s job is to lay out and prioritize the work, defining the standards necessary for completion, and allowing enough time for the team to deliver.

There is no excuse for ongoing fire drills on any team or in any organization. When team members don’t have the resources, time, or input to complete assignments within the normal work day, all eyes are on the leader to prevent this from happening again. Deadlines clarify when work needs to be completed and create focused action. When leaders don’t plan for them, deadlines become a sign of disrespect.

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