Presence of Firefighting = Absence of Strategy

July 8, 2019 Joe Britto

Reading time: about 3 minutes.


I think most people agree that strategy is important. Most senior teams spend time developing strategies, and most companies have a strategic framework they work to.

That’s great of course, but it begs one question: if we have sound strategies in place why is it that many teams spend so much time firefighting? It may seem like the two are unrelated. After all the best laid strategies can’t prevent an emergency. When something goes wrong how is that a strategic problem?

It seems self-evident, right?

A Strategic Flaw?

Of course I’d agree with that if firefighting were something that happened rarely or even occasionally in a business. But if it happens often? If we’re putting out fires on a regular basis could that be a flaw in our strategy?

Before we answer that question, let’s remind ourselves that strategy isn’t planning. It isn’t looking down the road and thinking about what tasks we need to get done in order to achieve our target/mission/ambition for the year. When we have a plan in mind, strategy is looking forward to map the business landscape and anticipate what might make it hard to achieve that plan. The strategic part is developing ways to overcome those challenges.

Think chess. The plan is to win, the strategy is to flex and adapt in relation to the moves your opponent makes. The plan never changes, the strategy must.

A Sailing Analogy

Framed like that the question of a few paragraphs ago – If we’re putting out fires on a regular basis could that be a flaw in our strategy? – answers itself: yes. And the answer is yes because if firefighting is a routine part of our professional lives then that’s one of the challenges to achieving our goal. It’s like a sailing ship to shore. The wind and current are constantly knocking it off course and if the captain doesn’t adapt, she’ll never reach shore. In the same way if we’re often knocked off course by fires, then we never get to deliver on our plan.

And that’s why makes it a strategic problem. Because in this view firefighting isn’t just something that happens. It’s part of the business landscape that needs to be taken account of for our plan to succeed.

One Question

So though lots of senior teams have strategies to deliver on their part of the corporate plan, they often don’t ask themselves one simple question when developing those strategies: what do we see that might make it tough to deliver on this strategy?

That question may throw up lots of answers. If one of them is the constant tug of fires then we know we need to address the cause of those fire drills from a strategic perspective. Is it a lack of staff? Is it faulty processes? Is it breaks in the line of command? Is it a cultural problem? Whatever it is, it’s also a challenge that needs a strategy to overcome.

Chicken and Eggs? Not This Time

And of course if I were to say that in a consulting meeting then Charlie Client would say something like, “Yeah, that’s great we’ll get on to that as soon as we have time.” Which is the firefighting trap we find ourselves in. If we had time, we tell ourselves, we’d be able to look at what’s going on to develop a plan to address it. But we don’t have time because we’re fighting all these fires.

Though it seems like it, this isn’t a chicken and egg problem. The problem is an inability to see the implications of this blog’s title: that firefighting is a direct result of an absence of strategy to address it.

Unless and until we see that we’re inhabit the firefighting vicious circle.

Breaking the Circle

For me, the inability to see that is a mindset challenge. If I’m set in a way of thinking then I don’t see the day to day fires as a strategic challenge. I see them the way I’ve always been led to see them: as a fact of life.

If you agree that seeing things differently is the first step in breaking a vicious circle, that process begins when we’re genuinely curious enough to ask our simple question. It’s continues when we combine flexibility of mind and enterprise thinking to allow us to develop a strategy to address the challenge.

It isn’t time that gets us out of the firefighting vicious circle. It’s the willingness to challenge our way of thinking.


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