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Getting Your Team out of "Firefighting Mode"

Have you ever watched a team (or been on a team) that is constantly overwhelmed? The work is chaotic and relentless, the team can never seem to catch its breath. It’s painful to watch - even more painful to experience. 


So why do teams fall into this pattern of constant “firefighting”? 

Here’s what typically happens:

  • The team has a reasonable workload at first, but then something goes wrong … a deadline moves, the work has to be redone, project scope changes.
  • Everyone gets to work and fixes the problem. However, to do so, they have had to truncate the timelines on other projects. 
  • This leads to other problems, errors, subpar work, etc. Which, in turn, leads to rework and more crunched timelines. 
  • Now people start skipping steps - work quality worsens. Senior leaders jump in to try to fix the issues. 
  • The team becomes exhausted. They stop worrying about quality - knowing that more senior people will fix the errors. 
  • Eventually someone quits out of frustration which shifts even more burden on to the overtaxed team.
  • The problems multiply. 

Firefighting is an apt analogy. The “fire” of this chaos consumes all available resources. The only thing that stops the fire from spreading is when there are no more resources left. Paradoxically, this is why adding more people doesn’t always solve the problem. The “fire” just spreads to the new resources.

So what’s the solution? 

As the leader of a “firefighting” team, you need to take a big step back. This is hard because, when the team is suffering, your instinct is to jump in and help. 


Your job in this situation is not to do, but to lead. You need to fix the underlying problems that created the problem. 

Fundamentally, “firefighting” is what happens when you neglect work that is “Important but not Urgent” (to borrow Stephen Covey’s framework).  “Important but not Urgent” activities focus on things like: Mindset, Process, Ownership, Training, Leadership, and Performance Management. They are what ensures that work gets done effectively and efficiently - avoiding the errors, inefficiencies, and rework that suck up all the available time.

Start with these questions: 

  • Mindset - Does the team lack understanding of the purpose of their work, leading to them focus energy inefficiently or incorrectly? 
  • Process - Are steps missing? Misunderstood? Counterproductive? Is the team skipping steps to try to accelerate work? 
  • Ownership - Does the team feel empowered to course correct or do they get hung up on bottlenecks, approvals, and bureaucracy? 
  • Skill Training/Coaching - Does the team lack capabilities, experience, or training to do the work expected of them? 
  • Leadership - Is there a mismatch between the way the team is being led and the leadership style necessary to help the team? 
  • Performance Management - Are people rewarded/celebrated for “firefighting” rather than what allows the team to move past “firefighting”? 

Chances are you will find challenges in multiple areas. You’ll need to address these issues systematically. When you’re the leader - that’s your job... but if you just can’t bring yourself to step away from fighting the fires yourself - then hire someone to help. Just don't let them get sucked into the "firefighting."

If you are looking for help overcoming these challenges in your organization or you’re a middle manager looking for coaching for yourself, send me a message at 

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