‘Management 101:’ Set a fire. Wait until it escalates. Resolve it. Tell everyone you put out a fire.

Managers setting fires at work

The headline pretty much says it all here, but I was thinking about this at the end of last week. This really is how most people manage in small, medium, and large corporations. The essential step process is:

  • Set a fire: You do this by lobbing some new concept out, or adding new people to an e-mail that don’t really need to be there but will still want to weigh in, or by changing the entire course of a project/task at the 11th hour.
  • Wait until it escalates: You give it a few days; let some reply-alls trickle in and some meetings be called on the topic, which most people probably (a) thought was resolved or (b) aren’t really sure why they’re involved in to begin with.
  • Resolve it: Come down semi-clearly one side of the issue so that it’s resolved, because you can do that — you’re a manager!
  • Tell everyone you put out the fire: This is the essential step. This is right up there with “The Temple of Busy” for most people. If something is happening at work in terms of timeframes and deliverables and you’re not in there saying how busy and important and relevant and time-consumed you are, do you truly exist in that workplace? Most people think not.

The above is a little bit tongue-in-cheek, sure, but here’s the essential situation: most managers can’t even set their own priorities. Tons of middle managers essentially ‘invent work,’ and then escalate that work into a fire or fire drill situation, just to feel like they’re relevant. It’s often all around no-ROI deliverables.

The reason people need to do this sequence above is because at most companies, we totally ripped the organic human element out of interaction — it’s all 10pm e-mails and “Thx, need by X-date.” If we had that human element back in it, people wouldn’t need to invent and escalate work in order to feel like they’re meanginful, purposeful, and useful to the place they spend half their waking hours. But because we ripped the human element away in favor of the task element, the above happens.

Seen this at your job?

Ted Bauer

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