Work smarter not harder: The Firehouse Idea

Work smarter not harder

Everyone’s chasing this idea of “work smarter, not harder.” I personally believe that many people regularly overstate how busy they are (more on that in a second), but business is complex these days for sure. You’ve got digital tools proliferating by the second. Globalization’s a real thing; I just did some business with some people in Singapore and New Zealand, two places I’ve absolutely never been. And, of course, most managers are terrible at their jobs — 82 percent by some estimate. So you’ve got all these things to figure out and the person who should help you, i.e. your manager, is probably a target-chasing buffoon. 

Hard to argue that we’re moving towards “work smarter not harder” in that environment, right?

But maybe there’s a way to capture this mythical unicorn of work smarter not harder. Let’s run through a couple of steps on this idea, shall we?

Work smarter not harder: The psychology

Because work is (still, at least) made up of human beings, you cannot strip the psychology from any discussion about it. We often do, but that’s dumb. Work is an emotional place. You spend hours there. People evaluate you. How could it not be emotional? Sheesh.

We tend to over-complicate most work discussions in about 17,933 different ways, but let me keep this simple for you. In the most general terms, this is what people want from work:

  • A salary that helps them achieve a certain quality of life
  • Benefits, etc. if they get sick or need help
  • Some level of respect from their boss
  • Opportunities for growth, either in that company or their broader career

Those four bullet points have been the backbone of almost every study done on work in the last 70 years.

But here’s the fork in the road: most companies aren’t designed to help provide these things for people, instead focusing on $$$ into the pockets of the existing power core. Most companies are also terrible at defining priorities.

Because of that 1-2 punch, a lot of employees at a lot of companies are searching for relevance and purpose and … finding approximately a pile of nothing. To then make themselves feel better about their relevance at work, they tend to:

This is the first impediment to work smarter, not harder.

Work smarter, not harder: The firehouse approach

If you followed the section above, you probably know a few managers in your day who essentially “create fires” just to be seen as relevant or “a problem-solver” to the top brass. This is actually a fairly common management practice. When you combine that with “sense of urgency” management — “Todd, I need these 17 things back urgently! No time to explain, though! Running to a meeting!” — then work smarter, not harder is basically dead.

How can you work smarter if it’s just task after task coming over the fence?

Here’s some new context on that from UVA’s Darden Business School, including this video:

This is something called “The Firehouse Idea.” As the article defines it:

First, get a firehouse. A “firehouse” is time or space in which you gain perspective, build relationships, learn and reflect. It could be a period of time you don’t check your email or maybe lunch with a colleague.

Indeed. If you want to work smarter, not harder … you need a firehouse.

Work smarter, not harder: How can I find this firehouse?

Because of what I discussed in the first section — people needing to be busy to find relevance at work — it’s very hard to find a firehouse. Most offices are a no-context, low-priority garbled mess of humanity whereby the executives hope money is being made and everyone else kinda gossips and undercuts each other as if it were an Olympic sport.


There are ways to find this firehouse and work smarter, not harder. For example:

Those are five potential pathways to this firehouse. It’s not perfect. As long as you work in a hierarchy, there are usually multiple people who can make your life an absolute living hell any given day. Sometimes it’s your direct boss — sometimes it’s some no-context person over here. If they make more than you, though, they can tell you “Do that! And by the way, it’s urgent!” This is a major flaw in most organizations, and let me tell ya this: “self-management” ain’t gonna solve it.

Work smarter, not harder: Quick, semi-funny story

I worked at a big health care company for a while about three summers ago. While there, I went to a three-day offsite around this topic: literally, “work smarter, not harder.” That’s what the trainers brought in were focusing us on.

If you Google “irony” right now, I think there’s a video from this conference. All we did was talk about task work, quantity of work, how busy everyone was, OMG so slammed, drowning, can’t get out, inundated, etc. It was essentially a three-day bitch fest about work, and periodically we would write on large poster sheets about “goals” and “vision.” Most of the time, the “vision” posters were actually about task work. Literally no one understands the difference between “strategy” and “operations.”

By the end of the three days, I wanted to light myself on fire. I certainly didn’t feel as if I was prepared to work smarter, not harder. And sure enough, on the first day back, it was all dithering and racing to meetings and calls. You know the deal:

That’s mostly just no-context racing around. It’s basically pretend work, but we’ve managed to convince ourselves it’s real target-hitting with legitimate ROI. It’s not, and it’s not “work smarter, not harder” either. But there are ways around this.

Ted Bauer

One Comment

  1. I don’t disagree with the firehouse concept. It just doesn’t fit my understanding of what it might mean to “work smarter”. I have commented on the harder/smarter tension in my own blog… you are welcome to go there and comment, as well.

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