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Breaking the fire-fighting doom-loop

I am certain that many people reading this will have come across the traditional Eisenhower matrix.  This useful prioritisation tool helps us assess tasks, activities or even projects based on their relative importance and urgency.  One version of the diagram is shown below:

Important Urgent Matrix

If there is one quadrant on this matrix that we are all familiar with, it is the “important and urgent” quadrant.  I suspect many of us spend our working lives in this quadrant, working judiciously to hit the relevant project deadline, and doing everything that we can to progress the most important and urgent projects.   There are probably some very long days, late nights and an element of pressure when working in this quadrant; everything is time critical.  And this often results in a lot of pressure, and it may sometimes feel like we are fire-fighting.


Fire Fighting (putting out a small fire with an extinguisher)Yet, the reality is that when a task, project or problem, is both important and urgent, often the options available for undertaking/solving it are limited.  We may well find that we are placing metaphorical sticking plasters over large, systemic issues—we never seem to have time to “do the thing right”.  In an extreme case, it may feel like we are blundering from crisis to crisis; as soon as one fire is damped down we move straight on to the next.  But we never actually find out the root cause—we never find the person with the matches who is starting the fires!


Thinking about how projects start, they are generally initiated based on a problem, idea, need or opportunity.  Often, when they are first conceived, they aren’t urgent at all.  A training company may notice that its competitors are starting to develop online virtual courses; but whilst the revenue is coming in from traditional courses the urgency for exploring new virtual formats might seem low.  A DVD rental company may notice substitutes such as streaming media services, but whilst its membership base is still renting movies it might sit back and think that it can ride the storm.  Of course, in both cases if (or when) the market change, there will need to be urgent action—but by that case it might be too late.    The training company will be desperate to develop new online offerings, very quickly, and won’t have the luxury of time to consider multiple platforms or solutions.   The DVD rental company may need to try to change its business model urgently—and as we have seen in at least one high profile example, that doesn’t always work well.


The key to avoiding this constant fire-fighting and knee-jerk reaction is for us to encourage our stakeholders to think more about what is important but not yet urgent.   These are crucial projects and initiatives that are on the horizon.  These are the icebergs on our sonar screen—it’s often much better to make a calculated, calm adjustment in direction than urgently lurching to port or starboard to avoid an organisational iceberg in our business environment.


This is as true for small, seemingly  “routine ” projects as it is for large strategic decisions.


What this means for business and business analysis

The BA toolkit contains a range of techniques that we can use to work with our stakeholders to understand, define (and align with) organisational strategy.  We can work with our stakeholders to understand the likely projects, initiatives and changes coming in the next  1,  3 or even 5 years, depending on our industries.   Understanding the external business environment, the current (and future) business model, and the portfolio of business changes required is crucial.


We can help our stakeholders develop a strategic roadmap—showing the likely projects and initiatives.  We can create short, concise and precise problem statements or Project Concept Summary documents which clearly catalogue the nature of the problem or opportunity being addressed.  And we can anticipate the optimum time to start the work—with better visibility of the pipeline we can plan.   We don’t need to do masses of work up front, but we can ensure that the key decisions are made at the optimum time.  As a team, we can decide when to decide—rather than waiting for the metaphorical urgent ‘fire bell’ to ring, by which time we have to make an instant decision.


Over time, this will help us and our stakeholders break the fire-fighting cycle.  The initial challenge is to convince stakeholders that there is value in looking ahead one (or more) years when there are still so many “important & urgent” fires that need our attention.  And of course, we must do this alongside the important & urgent work. Yet, even a small shift of focus will help enormously.  It doesn’t have to be time consuming, and it will help us build relationships with our stakeholders and get a bigger strategic view of the organisation.   Looking forward will, in the long time, save time. We’ll have better options, resulting in more optimal solutions and better business outcomes.


It is time to break the cycle!



What are your thoughts on importance vs urgency, and breaking the ‘fire-fighting’ loop? I’d love to hear them—please add a comment below!

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About the author:

Adrian Reed is Principal Consultant at Blackmetric Business Solutions, an organisation that offers Business Analysis consulting and training solutions. Adrian is a keen advocate of the analysis profession, and is constantly looking for ways of promoting the value that good analysis can bring.

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