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Escaping the Constant Firefighting Mode in Your Project

Every Project Manager had to deal with a 'fire' in their project at least once in their career. Here are some insights on how to avoid being in the constant firefighting mode and gain better control of your projects.

Escaping the Constant Firefighting Mode in Your Project

If you are a Project Manager, you have most likely had to deal with a fire in your project more than once. Dropping a production database, a critical error messing with payments, an unknown factor preventing the customers from accessing the software, or maybe just a deadline approaching with the majority of the tasks not done - it all happens. But you have powered through, done overtime with the team, resolved the problem and moved on to the next thing.

But what if the next thing is just another critical issue to be solved? Another deadline missed, another issue with the Production environment, another database dropped, with no light at the end of the tunnel anywhere near in sight? Just how much of this you and your coffee-powered team can take?

The answer is - less than you think. Even if you think you are holding up, your body will react to constant strain. Headaches, stomach issues, weight fluctuation, heart problems, high blood pressure, and trouble sleeping - those are all effects of prolonged exposure to stress. And it’s just what’s happening with your own body - let’s not forget the detrimental effect on the team’s morale, project quality and relationship with the client. 

Let me help you then by providing some insights on how to avoid being in the constant firefighting mode and gain better control of your projects.

Identifying a literal fire can be quite easy - typically there are clear signs, such as smoke, heat, light, and, well, the fire itself. The figurative fire we sometimes find ourselves in, though, can be more tricky to spot. 

Issues marked ‘critical’ or ‘urgent’ fill almost the whole of your to-do list. You don’t have the time to focus on your projects in any depth or create long-term plans. Delegating as much as possible has become a norm. You don’t remember when you have last finished work after 8 hours, and even when you do, you constantly check your phone for updates just in case. 

Apart from that, your team seems to be on the verge of exhaustion at all times. Nobody is smiling or making small talk at the meetings. Critical milestones remain without progress because your team’s attention constantly needs to be diverted to something else. Retrospectives or similar meetings have been abandoned to give everyone just a little extra time. 

If some of the above is true for yourself and your team, you have been in firefighting mode for some time, even if it simply became the new normal. And if you don’t do anything about it, your problems will only multiply to include burned-out teammates, failure to deliver projects, and budget problems as well.

How did it all happen? Well, that question typically does not have a clear-cut answer. Most likely, there were multiple factors at play, which, combined, resulted in a crisis. In the IT environment, there are some which occur more frequently than others.

The first on my list would be inadequate management and poor planning. You might not have been familiar with the industry, lacked some crucial piece of knowledge, misunderstood the client, or simply had too much on your plate. Perhaps you didn’t define the scope in enough detail or didn’t confirm what you thought was obvious. Maybe you thought that ‘it was fine before, so it will be fine now as well’ and allowed some scope to creep into your workload. But no matter the cause, the result is that your project has started on the path to miss the target. 

The second common cause of fires in your project would be underestimating the project’s risks and failing to prepare adequate responses to them. Understanding just what might go wrong is an extremely important part of the project, and it is always good to devote some time and resources at the very beginning to clarify it. Crucially, though, it is also necessary to revisit it frequently to make sure your insights and strategies are up-to-date. 

The third widespread cause of crucial issues is misaligned priorities. Often stemming from the lack of clear objectives or imprecise scope, they lead to constant shifts between tasks, quickly burning up the team’s time and stamina, as well as dragging down morale.  

The bad news is that it’s impossible to cover every scenario of something going wrong. The good news is that with time and experience, you will certainly get better at identifying potential problems if you allow yourself the time to understand the causes.

If you don’t necessarily have your own experience to rely on or are just looking to expand your knowledge, let me provide you with some possible strategies on how to avoid a constant firefighting mode.

Firstly, make sure that you plan the project effectively. What I mean by that is making sure that your scope is defined clearly and unambiguously, as well as understood by the team. Write down every change if the client requests it, make sure they understand the consequences it might have on the delivery, and get their approval. Manage your resources realistically, eliminating any possible wishful thinking, and make sure your assumptions are known and confirmed. 

Secondly, devote some of your time to risk management. Think of any dangers you might identify, involve the team and consult an expert to make sure you have covered your bases. Prepare adequate, realistic responses, and review everything periodically to make sure your risk management system is up-to-date. Encourage your team to inform you as soon as they detect any risks materializing if you don’t catch them yourself.

Thirdly, communicate openly and promptly. Sent regular reports of your progress to the stakeholders. Do not wait until the last moment before you inform the client that something went amiss because it ‘might not be that bad in the end’. Instead, let them know as soon as possible, ideally presenting them with a couple of options for handling the situation you see. They might have some options you are not aware of, and there is nothing worse than a breakdown of communication at a vital moment.

Apart from the strategies above, there are also additional elements you can introduce to make sure that your fire-free environment stays that way. 

Introduce and cultivate the culture of owning and learning from your mistakes. As mentioned in one of my previous posts, messing up is unavoidable. Treat it as an opportunity to improve, discuss with your team write down the lessons learned, and make sure you don’t make the same mistake twice.

Monitor the health of your project regularly. Use reports (such as velocity reports or burndown charts) to determine whether you are proceeding according to your estimations. Intervene as soon as you detect a problem to prevent going back into firefighting mode. Keep a proper oversight of your project to minimize the risk of being surprised by a critical issue.

In summary, once you find yourself in constant firefighting mode or realize that you have been in one - there are a couple of things you can do. Ensure the proper planning of your project and manage your resources and deadlines realistically. Devote your time to identifying risks and creating strategies for preventing them, and make sure your priorities align with those of the client, and that you are working towards the same goal. Communicate transparently and quickly in case of identifying an issue.

Once the situation calms down, to prevent it from worsening again, find a way to learn from your mistakes and introduce appropriate lessons learned in your future work. Additionally, keep a close eye on your project’s health and make sure you know as soon as possible if things start to go wrong.

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Jakub Czapski
Founding Partner at Blazity
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