In a business context, firefighting describes emergency situations in which a task must be done quickly and in a short period of time. Obviously, all companies face such kind of episodes, but when firefighting becomes a routine matter, alarms must be turned on: innovation is in danger.
Surely, we’ve all experienced an episode of firefighting. For some reason, whether our fault or an external factor to the company, a task must be done in a very short period of time. Nerves, stress, frustration… But in the end everything goes well and we get the job done on time.
Such situations are normal and rarely can be anticipated. They can even be challenging and, after the hard time, we are proud of ourselves because it was a test of our ability to improvise and work hard in difficult situations.
However, in some companies, firefighting is not an exception but the rule. Workers are continually fighting one fire after the other, with brief episodes of tranquility between fire and fire.
The human mind is a great machine. When faced with a complex situation, we are able to focus until the last neuron to resolve it. Everything else disappears. This ability to concentrate is great, but there is a problem: we become blind to everything else. Anything that is not related to the problem doesn’t exist.
There is a well-known experiment that exemplifies this situation. This is the Selective Attention Test, by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris. For those of you who don’t know it, in the video below, you’ll see a group of players, in white and black, passing a basketball. The task is: count how many times the players wearing white pass the basketball.
In emergency situations, our mind concentrates as in the experiment we have just seen. All our senses are focused on solving the problem. Sure we could improve things in order to avoid these emergency situations or to get things done quicker, but there is no time. The priority now is extinguishing the fire.
On the contrary, innovation needs our mind putting out of focus to capture the world around us, connecting ideas. Creativity needs freedom to pay attention to different things, to imagine. Innovation enables us to solve problems, but (oh, paradox) when we have to solve a problem urgently we are unable to innovate.
If “fire” episodes are isolated or rare events, once the fire has been extinguished we can try to analyze what happened, what we could change in order to be more efficient next time and avoid such situations.
However, when firefighting is normal procedure, when it becomes the usual way of working and employees are continually putting out fires, the company has two major problems: first, a bad organization of work. Second, innovation is unfeasible.
In these companies there is no one with enough time to innovate, it is not possible to analyze or improve anything. We are facing a company that doesn’t grow up, just survives. Perhaps, one day they won’t be able to extinguish the fire.