A Fire Drill is an Emergency Preparedness Tool, Not A PM Buzzword
There’s a boat load of buzzwords used in the corporate workplace that make me want to punch babies. I hear quite a few of them daily and it makes me glad I don’t have kids right now. If you’re unfamiliar with what I’m talking about, good for you. You haven’t been tainted by middle-management’s eternal goals of making projects as convoluted as possible while wrapping them up with sleazy-marketing-colored paper and ribbon. It’s a common occurence to hear at least one of the well-known words or phrases on the list such as synergy, vertical, circle back, or the one I absolutely hate the most: fire drill. Any time someone says something’s a fire drill, I want to tell them “there’s no fire, go sit the fack down.”
Typically, Fire Drills are products of poor planning on someone’s part, and they’re trying to cover their own ass. Everything will subsequently be an emergency and whatever you’re doing, however important it may genuinely be, will no longer be of relevance. This makes the Project Management part of me absolutely rage with hatred so hot, the Seven Circles of Hell have seen nothing like it. The effect is compounded when you don’t have any visibility into the back story or even the entire project. This is where things can get ugly.
The takeaway here is this: do what you can with what you have, and that’s that. Don’t be afraid to say “no” because at some point, you as a project manager, lead, or other member of leadership in your team has to draw a line; your team is important and playing along with someone’s failure to execute will only harm your team more. When you do say “no,” also be prepared for an alternate solution. While you may want to just flip the bird and drop the mic, coherence between teams is crucial lest a company completely fall apart because teams are literally at war with each other.
How to Triage a Last-Minute Project
Here’s the scenario: you’ve arrived at the office at your normal time, and team lead Joe from the Development team at XYZ Corp (the company you work for) rushes to your desk and says they need all of your staff to drop whatever they’re doing and do A, B, and C tasks by the end of the day, then scurries back to whatever hole he came out of. You, the PM and leader of your team of elite superhumans, knows very well how quickly a project can go sideways and understands the need to make sure the pieces all fall into place in a timely fashion. Here’s where you have three options:
- Automatically say yes without any second thoughts.
- Say No with an asterisk (a.k.a: “I need more information”).
- Say No and give a reason.
Let’s cover those three options in detail and determine which will create what outcome, starting with the worst-possible choice.
Automatically Say Yes Without Any Second Thoughts.
Of the three, this is the worst idea and here’s why: you just arrived. You have no idea what the status of your own team, is, yet. How on God’s green earth can you assume you can pull a rabbit out of your hat if you don’t even know you have a hat? Your team may be okay with pivoting for a small period of time to assist, but don’t expect last-minute mandatory overtime to go over well. Your team members have lives outside of the company at which they work and other responsibilities. The work-life balance that’s been established already should be adhered to as much as possible. Those who can stay, will. Those who cannot, won’t. Accept that.
Be careful, though. If you press too hard or pull the last-minute card too often, you’ll start building resentment and once your team starts resenting you, either they’ll leave, or they’ll become bitter and cause more problems for you in the long run.
Say No and Give a Reason.
This is a bit better of a choice, though not the best of the three for one good reason: your reasons may not be good enough for those above you. In some corporate structures, management doesn’t care that your team is already neck-deep in whatever projects they’re working on and can’t be pulled. Sometimes management does understand and accept that such is life. Joe, our friendly drive-by emergency crier won’t like it, for sure, but that’s not your problem. Setting boundaries is key to establishing proper inter-team relationships. It should be made clear who does what, who can cover for whom, what each team’s limits are, and the like. The last thing you need is to accept a last-minute project you can’t follow through on and end up causing more problems and setbacks and having management bear down on you even more than they already may be.
Your team will appreciate that you’re standing in front of them, taking the brunt of the force that is everyone else’s problems, especially if they’re already swamped and don’t have the resources to add more to their respective, metaphorical plates.
Say No with an asterisk (a.k.a: “I need more information”).
This option can be described as one where you’re basically saying “I need more information before I can make a decision.” This is the best of the three responses but not one others may necessarily like. While it will vary from company to company, some may expect a blind following and anything short of that is insubordination. Watch out for that. If you’re in that situation, you’re probably best getting out and finding a new gig. You don’t need that pressure on you at all times, it will wear you down.
When you basically say “wait a minute,” you’re telling them that you’re not opposed to helping, you just need to know the whole picture so you can make not only an informed decision, but make sure you can allot the resources necessary. This is where triaging of current tasks comes into play and it’s a learned skill. Make a thorough assessment of what’s currently going on in emergency land, then asess what’s going on in your own yard. Gather as much detail as you can:
- The end goal?
- What phase(s) has/have already been completed?
- Remaining phase(s)?
- Why is this now an emergency?
- What can we do to prevent whatever happened from happening while we’re working to “put out the fire?”
- How many people are needed?
- What is the deadline?
- Why is that date the deadline?
- Are there alternate deadlines available?
While not every one of those items is rock hard crucial to helping complete a last-minute project, it’s important to be able to assess if the project converted to “last-minute” status because of some sort of blocking issue that needs addressing or someone dropped the ball. If it’s the former, then do what you have to do, soldier! Rescue and win the battle with glory and honor. If someone dropped the ball, you need to make sure you’re covered if you start assisting; the last think you need is to go down with a sinking ship that you don’t know is sinking. I’m not saying that you should automatically peace out if you find out that someone oopsed or neglected to do their part. I’m saying you need to cover yourself and your team before you go in. Don’t dive head first into a shallow pool.
If you can provide alternate solutions to the problem that is bringing with it buckets of doom, then go for it. It’s entirely possible someone missed something or has been neck-deep in whatever they’re struggling with and failed to see the solution from another angle. While nobody loves a pompous ass, everyone loves a hero, so go be that hero.
When All the Options Make Things Worse
There’s an invisible line that once crossed, there’s no going back, and you’re better off elsewhere. You might find out that you crossed the line when you get let go because you chose the wrong option and now management wants your head because reasons (i.e. “corporate synergy”). Times like this suck and can be rather chaotic. The effects are longer lasting because it doesn’t just affect you in the short term, it affects those around you who may have depended on you, like your family. All of a sudden, the mortgage is on the line. It’s a tough line to walk and a lot of people aren’t willing to walk it so instead they choose to make whomever they have to happy no matter what the cost.
This is a decision you’ll have to make on your own. I can’t tell you what to do or what would be the best option. I can however tell you to be confident in whatever decision you make. Your team will look to your for guidance and if you’re not sure of anything, they won’t be sure of you. On the flip side, if you’re always willing to bow and kiss feet at the drop of a hat, your team will look at you as nothing more than a butt kisser. Don’t be that guy. I’ve seen a lot of that in my travels and my experience tells me that being a kissass is like doing heroin: once you start, it’ll be damn hard to stop. Not only that, but whomever’s metaphorical backside you’re planting your metaphorical lips on will get addicted to it, too. They’ll start to realize they can manipulate and basically come to expect that when they say “Jump!” you’ll say “How high?”, regardless if you’re already smacking your head on the ceiling just standing up straight.
Several militaries have a mantra called the “Seven Ps” (“7Ps”):
There are variations such as “Proper Planning and Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance” and the six-word version “Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance” which is more along what I belive in on a day-to-day basis.
Don’t Forget, You’re Still a Team-Player
It’s not a bad idea to understand that the nature of working with multiple teams is that from time to time you’ll have to step in. I want to make a disclaimer that all of what I said above should be taken with a grain of salt. A lot of it comes from personal experiences and trials and tribulations. I’ve been in the scenario of the Project Manager where I had to determine if my team really could help out or if I’m just going to send them to the butcher as well as being a member of a team where the PM blindly accepted all requests for emergency assistance that really wasn’t an emergency nor was it appropriate to drop everything and run into the burning building that was a very poorly planned project.
Don’t get mad at me if you get fired over anything I’ve written. These are my opinions and you’re chosing to act on possibly unfounded information. If you value my opinion at all (which I think you do if you made it this far), be careful when sailing in uncharted waters. Don’t be a dick. Don’t get angry. Don’t ruin the vibe of the office, either. People will just hate you. Being professional is key to being respected. Even if you say no, a quality inter-team relationship will survive the decline or modification of a request.
Thanks for taking the time to read this. If you have any comments, suggestions or questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me. If you’d like, hit me up on twitter. I’d love to have a conversation with you. I’m always open to hearing what other’s think about various topics. There’s never just one way of doing things and something can always be improved upon.
(you can also find this post on the wonderful writing platform Medium.)