Firefighting is one of the most prized skills at the workplace. Think about some of the most highly regarded people in your company. I can bet that at least some of them are admired simply because they are so good at dealing with crises. (Firefighting is one of the most prized skills at the workplace. Think about some of the most highly regarded people in your company. I can bet that at least some of them are admired simply because they are so good at dealing with crises.)
Firefighting is one of the most prized skills at the workplace. Think about some of the most highly regarded people in your company. I can bet that at least some of them are admired simply because they are so good at dealing with crises.
(Firefighting is one of the most prized skills at the workplace. Think about some of the most highly regarded people in your company. I can bet that at least some of them are admired simply because they are so good at dealing with crises.)

Cubiclenama | Learning to fight fire

Why don’t business schools teach courses on firefighting?

Earlier this week I was suddenly, and without any obvious reason, plunged into deep nostalgia for the London 2012 Olympics. Maybe I walked past a large group of people dressed identically except for one imposter. Perhaps it was this whole Vijender Singh controversy.

Whatever it was, suddenly I was pining for those 16 days of sheer delight. I was lucky enough to be in London for the duration of the Olympics last year, and to write about it for this newspaper. I even applied for and got tickets to go and see a few events.

The whole experience will remain one of life’s great, unforgettable 16-day-long moments. Ah, what joy it was, waking up in the morning, planting myself in front of a TV screen, jogging back and forth through the 30-odd BBC channels exclusively streaming Olympics… and overdosing on sports. To this day, the BBC’s Olympics theme music plays through my head note for note, and I get a little misty-eyed every time.

I told the missus about my sudden relapse into Olympics nostalgia, and soon we were discussing how well, in general, London had pulled it all off. The city didn’t come to a standstill, bridges didn’t fall, stadiums didn’t get shelved and there certainly weren’t endless corruption scandals. (Not yet, in any case.)

But then the missus reminded me that it wasn’t as if things didn’t go wrong before and during the Olympics. They did. Lots of things went wrong. The online ticketing system was often less reliable than a Gartner white paper on technology. Traffic was a mess on the first few days. And they did get their Koreas mixed up more than once.

The important thing, though, was not that they screwed up. But the fact that they—whoever managed the Olympics—dealt with these crises quickly and conclusively. Throughout the Olympics, I feel, they displayed a tremendous ability to fight fires.

Yet this is exactly what our business schools tell us is a dark, forbidden art. Firefighting, we are so often told, is the outcome of bad planning, poor strategy and insufficient leadership. If we studied the problem hard enough, made a plan, and stuck to that plan… then where is the need for firefighting? Firefighting is for bad managers, poor planners and inadequate executors.

Guess what? Firefighting is one of the most prized skills at the workplace. Think about some of the most highly regarded people in your company. I can bet that at least some of them are admired simply because they are so good at dealing with crises. (When I say crisis I don’t mean diabolical things like earthquakes, military coups or Lotus Notes. I am referring to more quotidian things like bad meetings, unexpected sales reports, and people who prove to be exactly the worst possible hires just 15 minutes into their probation period.)

In a previous job I was once asked to work with this shiny new vice-president of strategy who’d been educated at a US business school that shall not be named by Indians any more. During our very first meeting, he asked me what “business strategy" was. I gave him several potted answers, all of which he pooh-poohed.

He then went to a white board he had newly installed in his cabin, and drew two little dots around 15 inches apart. He pointed at one dot: “This is where we are now." He pointed at the other one: “This is our goal." He drew an arrow connecting “now" and “goal": “This arrow is business strategy."

I was thoroughly impressed. Which, in hindsight, was the wrong reaction. I should have been utterly mortified. (Also, who installs a white board on day one? Shudder.)

A few weeks later, as our project began to hit the first signs of turbulence, his white board analogy went out of the window. Of course I didn’t realize it back then. Back then we were firefighting like crazy. That was no time for introspection.

Years later I think I know what we were doing wrong. We assumed that there was one, straight arrow from “now" to “goal". And each time the arrow drifted, or paused, we basically went to the toilet in our trousers.

What we didn’t appreciate—both the boss and the underling—was that these arrows drift, they pause, they linger and they often invert. That is what these arrows do.

But that is not the impression your business school textbooks, your classroom case studies, and your back copies of Harvard Business Review leave you with.

They glorify, I feel, the straight, narrow and strategic path. Instead, why don’t business schools teach courses on firefighting? “Faeces Meets Fan 101". “How to stay on your feet when the rug gets pulled out from under you?" Maybe this is not a skill to deride as the recourse of the unstrategic, but one to celebrate. Because in the real world, faeces happens. And a good cope-r, I think, makes a great cubiclist.

Cubiclenama takes a weekly look at pleasures and perils of corporate life. Your comments are welcome at cubiclenama@livemint.com.

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