More than 80 percent of business failures can be traced to a single cause — bad strategy. While it’s convenient to blame an organization’s failings on external factors like the economy, research shows that much more often than not, decisions about strategy are at fault. Good strategy continues to remain elusive in altogether too many cases.
In my latest book, “Strategyman vs. the Anti-Strategy Squad,” I personify the top 20 challenges to strategy as villains, such as Meeting Menace, Dr. Yes and Fire Driller — who I’m sure many will recognize in their own organizations.
A “fire drill” is anything that seems urgent but is ultimately not important or doesn’t need to be an immediate priority. We have all experienced fire drills that pull us away from the tasks at hand. Internally, these can be flavor-of-the month initiatives that aren’t directly related to strategic plans or conference calls that have no direct business value for the participant. Externally, a fire drill might be that customer who continually asks for tasks to be performed in a much shorter time frame than normal; requests for proposal that don’t match up with your business acquisition criteria; or people outside your organization looking to set up meetings to discuss partnerships or alliances without first providing sufficient business rationale.
Why is Fire Driller so powerful? Because he uses the adrenaline rush of putting out fires to create a sizzling commotion. This adrenaline-filled reaction to important but non-urgent events is intoxicating and fills managers with a sense of instant gratification from the flurry of activity required to put the fires out.
This is particularly dangerous in light of a recent survey by the Strategic Thinking Institute of 500 managers at 25 companies who said their No. 1 strategy challenge is time. I often hear, “There isn’t time in my busy schedule to stop and think about strategy.” Many managers also point out that time spent thinking strategically isn’t one of the metrics by which their performance is measured. With time being such a precious commodity, Fire Driller is an extremely effective anti-strategy villain.
So, what are we to do? It’s important to note that just as fire requires oxygen to burn, fire drills require attention to fan their flames — and organizational culture plays a role in fanning these flames. Fire drills can become a habit and consume a disproportionate amount of resources. As anyone who has tried to break a bad habit knows, it’s much easier said than done.
A habit consists of the following three components, according to research done by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: cue (trigger), routine (behavior) and reward (result).
This neurological loop is at the core of our habits, both good and bad. The cue for a positive habit, such as exercising in the morning, might be your dog waking you up at 6 a.m. with a lick on the hand. The routine could be jogging along the lake, and the reward an ice-cold, chocolate protein shake. The cue for a detrimental habit like uncontrolled gambling might be boredom. The routine could be going to a casino and playing the slot machines, and the reward the excitement that comes from winning or from the near misses of almost winning.
All habits follow this path of cue, routine and reward. The key to eliminating a bad habit is to replace the routine or behavior with a more positive or productive one. This shift in routine can transform the bad habit into a good one.
In the case of a fire drill, it’s to be expected that fires will continue to pop up during the course of business, even if some can be prevented by understanding their root causes. When the cue of fire triggers the habit, however, we need to replace the current routine — a flurry of unplanned activity — with a new one. A phrase as simple as “Let’s think about that” can initiate the new routine. This phrase reminds people not to just react to the fire, but to consider it relative to the other planned initiatives currently at stake.
If your team is seduced by firefighting, consider adopting the following technique when the fire alarm is sounded:
- Identify the fire.
- Determine the fire’s impact. If left unattended, would the fire get larger and hinder the attainment of your goals or smolder out with no real impact?
- Attend to the fire or ignore it.
- Eliminate the cause of similar future fires.
- Design a fire drill protocol using the phrase “Let’s think about that” as a trigger to avoid an immediate reaction.
You can also use the following five questions as you look to extinguish the fire drill mentality in your group:
- Do we need to attend to this?
- Does this fall within our responsibilities?
- Who can handle this more efficiently?
- How did this fire start in the first place?
- What steps can we take to prevent future occurrences?
By changing your organization’s reaction to fires, you can defeat Fire Driller and take back control over your time — and your strategy.
Rich Horwath is CEO of the Strategic Thinking Institute and author of numerous books on strategy, including his most recent book, “StrategyMan vs. the Anti-Strategy Squad: Using Strategic Thinking to Defeat Bad Strategy and Save Your Plan.” He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.