What My Kids Taught Me About Fire-Fighting Cultures

There times that I absolutely love watching my kids play with each other.  With Ella and Owen being only two years apart, they can often do the same activities and Owen keeps pace with his older sister much more than she would like. They giggle, share toys, and compliment each other very well.

The nice play, however, often turns very quickly into trouble.

As an example, the other day Owen and Ella are tickling each other, rolling around on the carpet. I was thinking to myself how much fun it is to see them grow up together when Owen rolled over on top of his sister. Ella asked him to get off, and I heard him laugh to himself. Realizing he could tweak his sister, he refused to get up and started laughing.

You can guess what happened next. Tears were shed, said sorry, and promises made.

These things just happen sometimes with siblings and the countless other situations that mirror this one. The water boiled over and caused a mess that we had to clean up. Boy does this describe a lot of our days in the office, right?

Reactive management — or firefighting as we sometimes like to call it — sometimes feels like watching your kids fight. You can hardly stay ahead of the situation, rarely catch your breath to plan your next step, and generally treat each other with a sense of exasperation.

It didn’t take a Google search to know this is something we all struggle with. The coaching points attached, though, were quite surprising. While some suggest focusing on solutions such as strategy and quality, most just think you can just plan your way out of firefighting. If you just develop a plan, follow it to the letter, and have the right people in place, your team morale will improve.

The good news is nothing I found suggested it can keep problems from happening. The bad news is nowhere did I read exactly how to follow plan properly. In consulting, I can imagine why. There just has to be a better way to resolve a fire-fighting culture in your office than having the right people and plan in place.

Thank goodness for the Agile principles, which speak to this exact issue. If we go back to my situation with Ella, the same tips I gave her can help transform reactive fire-fighting into proactive leadership.

Know the pace of your play.

Ella thought it would be hilarious to wrestle with her younger and rougher brother. She’s bigger, and more well spoken, so she probably thought she was in control. However, choosing to play in a situation like that didn’t allow her to control the situation. When we embrace work that prioritizes “just get it done now, and worry about tomorrow later,” we take the same risk.

This is when it comes in handy to emphasize working at a sustainable pace on our Agile teams. We don’t plan too much in a sprint, stick to what we planned on doing for that iteration (as much as humanly possible), and work in the prioritized order.

What Ella needed to learn is that while she is bigger than her brother, she’s not as willing to play at the wild pace Owen is. By him being willing to cross the imaginary boundary of playing too rough, Ella is playing with fire when she engages in those activities. We’re working with her to learn how to stand up, tell Owen she doesn’t want to play that way and do something different.

Watch your reaction.

Ella wayyyyyyy over-reacted to the situation, which I wish was something we grew out of. By letting her emotions take control of the situation, she wasn’t able to think clearly and make a great decision. She also lost control of the situation because and wasn’t able to communicate well. Even though Owen was in the wrong by not getting off his sister, reacting poorly cost Ella.

Face-to-face communication is a staple of collaboration between stakeholders and teams. While the principles don’t mention anything about using your “polite voice” with team members, there is plenty that can help govern your emotions. However, it will help to have a goal of working software in a way that utilizes simplicity and the art of maximizing work not done.

So that takes care of Ella’s reaction, but what about the parents?

Leadership will always have too much on their plate to worry about small issues that arise. How he or she reacts to each flare up will create the culture that is embraced. If Karyn and I always over-reacted, doling out punishment and raising our volume just because we want the problem to go away quickly, it sends the wrong message. Even when real issues arise, we have to create an environment with our kids that react calmly and without creating drama.

Same goes for your teams.

Did it work?

Once we finished talking, life went back to normal…at least for a while. Believe it or not, the same situation popped up again with my kids a few minutes later. I know what you’re thinking, it’s like they forgot or something. However, I can see with Ella that she is trying some of the things we teach her to do with Owen. When we have to pull them apart, we recognize the effort she put in and ask how well she thought it went.

This points straight to one of the principles. By reflecting on how to become more effective, Ella is learning that it’s possible to adapt to the whirling dervish that is her little brother. It may not manifest itself in immediate wins for her, but the kids are constantly experimenting with their behavior towards each other.

Lyssa Adkins has a great class on conflict management that addresses something else very important to this and the previous point. Whenever you react poorly to a fire, it’s important to get curious as to why. Asking those tough questions over and over reveal new things to try, and that leads to more experiments. You’re not going to know how to parent your kids the moment they are born, just like every stakeholder brings their own set of shepherding challenges.

It’s imperative that I get curious to learn how each stakeholder ticks if I’m going to find the right combination of levers to pull when working with him or her. I’m betting your company’s issue-resolution culture is in need of some curiosity.


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