7 Ways Managers Can Protect Team Priorities From Fire Drills

Handling Urgent Work Requests as a Team Leader

You’ve been there before. You’re in the zone, your team is doing everything right, getting things done. And then…something urgent pops up that needs your attention. Now.

As the leader or manager of a team, how do you handle new priorities or extra work that gets handed to you from higher up, or from another department? Our friend Rob brought up this issue in the ROWE Online Support Community, and I wanted to share with all of you some of our thoughts, in case you deal with the same things. Rob says:

Our team jokes that it’s the “Curse of competency ” when we are tasked with extra work that takes away from our core activities (those that drive results). What can I do to protect [my team] from this influx of extra work?

In an ideal world, each member of the team would know what their specific goals are, be empowered to get those results, and plan accordingly so that they can deliver results on time. But even in the best work environments this isn’t always the case.

Dealing with attitudes

Rob goes on to describe some of the troublesome attitudes and roadblocks to focusing on results. I think we can all identify with these kinds of disorders in the workplace:

Fire Drill Emergencies

Not My Job

Managers often get caught in the middle of these scenarios. If your work environment tends to have a top-down management style, you might see a lot of emergency, last-minute requests from senior management. If everyone in your organization isn’t tied to results and specific, outcome-based goals, you might also get a lot of lateral “its not my job” requests from other departments. You and your team, of course, are awesome and efficient and you get stuff done. So naturally, you get more work!  In other words – yay, you get punished for being efficient.

7 Ways Managers Can Protect Team Priorities From Fire Drills

Here are some ways managers can help their employees deal with shifting priorities:

1. Don’t assume: Sometimes the business has perfectly valid reasons for what seems like a mad request, and maybe you just don’t know about them. When priorities shift with good cause we have to be flexible and get the job done. This is where communication really comes into play to get the team rallied around the new plan.

2. Open communication: If you work in an environment where honesty and open communication are valued, address the problem with the people involved. Matt Rogish, a manager at FundingGates.com, advises to ask reasonable questions, and hopefully people will respond reasonably. Imagine that! “This causes problems a, b, and c, and is distracting us from our goals. Are we sure we want to do this? Why are we doing this? What problem are we trying to solve?”

3. Offer an alternative: If there aren’t any good reasons for “emergency work”, offer an alternative solution. “We’d love to do this [crazy, stupid thing] and want to be sure you get the best possible service and outcome from us. What about delivery by Wednesday?”

4. Fix the root issue: Perhaps the situation is happening over and over again. You’re getting involved in work that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with your team goals, or with defined results for the organization. Each week Jerry needs something for a 4 pm client meeting, stat! Do some root-cause analysis with Jerry and be helpful in figuring out a plan of attack. Maybe Jerry isn’t getting X, Y, and Z from Bob in IT. Focus your efforts on getting everyone involved in fixing the real issue, not just putting out the fire on your end each week. Playing detective will save you headaches in the long run (and will you look at those leadership skills…way to go!)

5. Speak up if you have a better solution: Perhaps there’s a problem and someone is asking for a particular solution, but you know of a better way to solve it. “This happens all the time in software development; folks jump to solutions but we can often come up with better ones,” says Rogish. Which leads so perfectly to one last thought…

6. Ask your team what they think! This is a key principle we tackle in Why Managing Sucks and How to Fix It . Your employees are good at coming up with the right solutions to difficult problems that they face every day. Traditionally, management has carried this weight on theirshoulders, but it’s a freeing moment (and okay, a little scary) to open things up and get the team perspective.  Let them come up with the ideal fix and empower them to make it happen. They just might surprise you.

So, Rob–and anyone else out there who deals with fire drills–what I’m saying is …this is a hard problem and you’re not alone. Communication is the key. Be helpful, but ask reasonable questions and look for the best solution. Put on your detective cap and figure out why communication or planning problems keep popping up. And most of all, continue kicking ass and being really good at what you do! We’re rooting for you.

 How do you handle putting out fires on a daily basis? 

Posted in ,

Jody Thompson

Jody Thompson, along with her partner Cali Ressler, is the Founder of CultureRx and co-creator of the Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE). Jody is a nationally recognized keynote speaker and bestselling author. She has been featured on the covers of BusinessWeek, Workforce Management Magazine, HR Magazine, Hybrid Mom Magazine, HR Executive Magazine, and the New York Times. You can find her on Linkedin.

Reader Interactions


  1. Executive Search Agency says

    I agree with Author on this. I believe the Assumptions you hold and open communication you maintain with your team and management should solve half of the problem.

    But one thing we should keep in mind “Emergencies will come” and “You can’t change this fact”.

    Excellent thoughts.


Pin It on Pinterest