Are You a Good Fire Chief?

Does it seem like every day is an exercise in firefighting?

Every good fire chief knows that the best fires are the ones you stop before they start. Every time I have to fight a fire on top of my desk, I ask myself how could I have prevented this?

The answer always seems to be better planning, better communications, or a better strategy.

Most plans go wrong because the plan was flawed. Even if it is someone else’s plan, you have the skills and knowledge to review his or her plan and point out the frailties. It is hard to blame the inexperienced when something goes wrong if a more experienced person could have prevented the problem with a little coaching (not micromanagement).

Communications problems are a symptom of a lack of clarity. When two projects are competing for the same resource it is typically because of a lack of clarity about priorities, timing, or availability. A good plan works only if the plan is well communicated.

Strategy in its simplest form is defining an endpoint. It is telling people why something needs to happen and what the expected outcomes are. Because strategy looks several years into the future, it ties together all of the current and planned activities. When there is a straight line between today and 10 years from now, it is easy for the team to have a laser-like focus on what they are doing and a clear understand of how it fits into the whole. When all of the lines look like a bowl of spaghetti, each intersection is going to be the site of another fire. After the fire is fought, two or more projects will be suffering which means more will suffer in the future. No wonder it seems like there is an endless supply of fires.

Having a strategy and clearly articulating the strategy is the most important preventative. Both make it easier for your staff to plan. Many of the communications problems never arise because clarity limits the need for communications.

The further into the future the strategy looks and the clearer the strategy is the stronger the nonprofit is and the higher mission sustainability will be. There is also a higher level of engagement on the part of the staff and volunteers. People find fulfillment when they clearly understand their purpose and the path they are intended to travel.

When the strategy is clear it helps the team to be better planners because it provides them with a structure, direction, and goals.

Next Step:

Use every fire as catalyst for refining your strategy

Encourage your team to engage in a peer review of every plan

Focus all communications on the strategy

Because strategy looks into the distant future, it is easy to lose track of the strategy in the daily rush. The daily rush focuses on the now and everyone needs to be reminded to look at how the now fits with the future. Keeping the focus on the future ensures everyone is looking in the same direction at the same time. When everyone sees the same endpoint, the communication is clearer and more relevant.

Doing a peer review of every new plan offers your team several benefits. The review process will improve communications. It will improve everyone’s planning skills. It will raise your team’s level of intentionality and discipline.

Use the next fire as the catalyst to revisit your strategy. Before you fight the fire, adjust your nonprofit’s strategy and give the strategy the clarity and purpose that would have prevented this fire. Within a few months, you will notice a significant decline in the number of fires you are fighting, a higher level of staff engagement, and increased effectiveness. You will be surprised by the changes that occur.

Take It Further:

Strategy and good planning are hard to do without a supportive culture. What help do you need from your senior staff and the board to change the culture?


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