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Fire Fighting vs. Prevention: Reward Proactive Avoidance

    Bryan Green


    If you’ve ever applied for an office job, you may have noticed the work environment described as “face-paced.” Or, the job listing encourages applicants who are “good under pressure”. When I read these types of descriptions what I think is “we reward fire fighting over fire prevention.” Red flag!

    In the fast-paced world of project management, urgent issues often arise, demanding immediate attention and swift resolution. Metaphorically, these are the “fires” project managers find themselves frequently fighting. While tackling these fires is essential, if all we’re doing is fighting fires, is it possible we’re creating scenarios where fires are likely to happen? If fire fighting is rewarded, what do you stand to gain from preventing them? This distinction, between “fire fighting” and “fire prevention,” is fundamental to understanding how we approach problems and, more importantly, how we anticipate them.

    Understanding Fire Fighting and Fire Prevention

    The ability to deal effectively with urgent issues is a crucial skill for any project manager. However, a broader perspective reveals an equally significant, though often overlooked, aspect of project management.

    The Fire Fighting Paradigm

    Fire fighting, in a project management context, involves dealing with issues that have become urgent, requiring immediate attention. The ability to perform under pressure, think on your feet, and make quick decisions is the hallmark of an efficient fire-fighting project manager.

    I don’t want to discredit those who excel at fire fighting. Sometimes, issues do arise at the last minute and must be dealt with swiftly and effectively. In the face of some issues, there is no time for democratic deliberation and those who keep the fires under control should be commended for their efforts. However, there’s more to managing a project waiting for fires to arise.

    The Unsung Hero – Fire Prevention

    Fire prevention, by contrast, involves identifying potential risks ahead of time and implementing strategies to avoid or mitigate these issues. It’s a proactive approach that often flies under the radar precisely because it prevents crises before they occur. How do you point out all the issues that never happened?

    Those who excel at fire prevention are far less often rewarded for their efforts. Effective fire prevention means taking steps on a daily basis to predict and circumvent future issues. If you’re doing fire prevention well, no one even notices. And therein lies the problem for any project manager.

    Rewarding Fire Prevention over Fire Fighting

    How you recognize and reward fire fighting and fire prevention can completely change the direction of your project. While it’s essential to deal effectively with urgent issues, overemphasizing fire fighting can lead to an inadvertent neglect of fire prevention efforts.

    The Visibility Bias

    Often, the efforts of fire-fighting project managers are more visible and therefore more likely to be rewarded. The intensity and urgency of the problems fire fighting resolves leave a lasting impression, while the quiet consistency of fire prevention efforts go unnoticed.

    Simply put, fires are easy to see. Those who excel at managing urgent issues are equally visible. Their contributions to the project are obvious and often quantifiable. As a result, PMs and senior leadership disproportionately reward fire fighters.

    Conversely, fire prevention is less visible. Every day, team members are taking small steps to assess and mitigate future issues. Since these efforts prevent expensive issues from ever occurring, they often go unrecognized.

    The problem, of course, comes when PMs take the easy route of only rewarding fire fighting. If a team member will be rewarded for fighting a fire rather than preventing it, that person may neglect their prevention efforts in order to fight the fire later. Over time, the fires will grow and the project will become a non-stop fire fight.

    Shifting the Recognition Paradigm

    Famed billionaire investor and partner to Warren Buffet, Charlie Munger, said “Show me the incentive, and I will show you the outcome.”

    If you only reward fire fighters over fire preventers, you’ll get more fires. Not because team members are starting fires (though that does sometimes happen), but because the team will prioritize waiting for issues to arise rather than prevent them from happening. As a PM, you need to incentivize fire prevention and fire fighting. If you have to choose to incentivize only one, prioritize prevention.

    In order to promote a culture of fire prevention, it’s important to actively recognize and reward those who successfully mitigate risks before they flare up into “fires.” Public commendation for effective risk mitigation can incentivize a preventative approach.

    From Experience

    I was lucky to have my “ah ha” moment early in my career when it comes to fire fighting. I was completing an internship at a small design firm where work hours were strictly enforced and those who showed up early and left late were seen as “team players”. This isn’t an uncommon view in many industries, but it was my first experience with it.

    One of my co-workers would routinely show up an hour before work started and would stay hours after everyone had gone home. He was easily putting in 10-12 hours each day. (His position wasn’t compensated hourly, or billed hourly, so that wasn’t the reason.)

    When we’d ask him for help on team projects, he was always too busy with some urgent issue and he “needed to say until 7pm” just to get his own work done. I was only an intern, so I assumed this was normal for people in his position. Though, in hindsight, no one below him or above him in the organizational chart put in nearly as many hours.

    Once, at lunch, one of the senior leadership team was asking for everyone’s thoughts on this employee. I suspect he was up for promotion and management was looking for public sentiment. Somewhat unprofessional? Maybe. But I was 19 so I wasn’t going to speak up.

    The Truth Comes Out

    Most people shared the stereotypical “he’s such a hard worker”, “he’s very dedicated”, “he’s setting a good example”, etc. until one of the other senior managers said “I think there might be something wrong with him.”

    There was a moment of awkward silence before he continued “why does he have so much more work than everyone else but he produces similar results? No one else needs to work 60 hours a week. I’m not even here this much.”

    A light bulb went off in my head. I’d never considered comparing someone’s output to their invested time. It seems obvious now, but we discovered this man was constantly putting out fires. He couldn’t get ahead because he’d never developed the skills to prevent fires. The company rewarded him for showing up early and staying late. And, management praised him for his fire-fighting abilities.

    The last I heard management held a discussion with him about his work hours and committed to improving his output. For his sake, I hope he works fewer hours for the same quality of work. According to his LinkedIn, he left the company shortly after my internship ended.

    Fostering a Fire Prevention Culture

    Why do so many project managers create fire-fighting cultures over fire-prevention cultures? Because its easier. Creating a culture that values fire prevention over fire fighting is not a simple task, but it’s a shift that can bring significant benefits in the long run.

    Lessons Learned Meetings

    One effective strategy for fostering a fire prevention culture is the implementation of regular “lessons learned” meetings. These types of meetings are right out of the Agile project management approach. And, while Agile methodologies are harder to implement wholesale on a construction project, components of Agile will greatly improve your construction project.

    During these sessions, the team can reflect on recent issues, how they were handled, and more importantly, how they could be prevented in the future. This creates an environment of continuous learning and improvement and emphasizes the importance of foresight and planning. While fires may occur, your team should never have to face the same (or similar) fires more than once.

    The Power of Proactive Recognition

    Another critical strategy is the proactive recognition of fire prevention efforts. Recognizing team members who identify potential future problems and suggest ways to mitigate them encourages others to adopt a similar proactive mindset.

    In Practice

    Bringing these principles into everyday project management requires a consistent and committed approach.

    Implementing Regular Reviews

    One practical step is to schedule regular “lessons learned” meetings mentioned above, where the team discusses recent projects or tasks, the problems encountered, and how these issues could be prevented in the future. This not only provides a platform for learning but also helps the team to focus on fire prevention rather than solely on fire fighting.

    We all probably suffer from too many meetings in our day-to-day life. But some meetings are more valuable than others. A one-to-two hour bi-weekly Lessons Learned meeting can easily save dozens or hundreds of hours over the course of the project, while reducing stress.

    Set up a regular meeting with your team with the intention of discussing issues that occurred since the last meeting. Be prepared for an honest discussion about the cause of these issues and what can be done to prevent similar issues going forward. No one benefits from the blame game, or externalizing responsibility. I’ve sat in dozens of meetings where all our problems were blamed on the client and there was nothing that could be done. To that, I call bullshit. Managing the client and external stakeholders is a part of a project management, and strategies for doing so collaboratively should be rewarded. If needed, invite the client to the Lessons Learned meeting.

    Cultivating a Culture of Recognition

    Encouraging a culture that values and recognizes fire prevention is also essential. This can be as simple as publicly acknowledging a team member who identified a potential risk and took steps to mitigate it. Over time, this recognition can help shift the team’s mindset towards prevention.

    Everyone is responsible for risk management and I think its one of the least considered parts of project management. Some projects have active risk registers with full risk analyses done on a regular basis. But most risk assessment and management is done informally. So, take time to do your own risk management. Consider the regular actions of your team and identify things that, if neglected, could seriously damage the project.

    In meetings, publicly commend those who identify potential risks and make suggestions for mitigating those risks. Consider those actions when assessing team performance. Over time, your team should grow increasingly confident sharing risks and the number of fires on a project should decrease.

    Final Thoughts

    No project will be free of fires. Things break, people get sick, requirements will go unnoticed. But exclusively rewarding the handling of issues after they arise creates a culture where only urgent matters are addressed.

    By focusing on identifying and mitigating risks before urgent problems arise, project managers can create a less stressful, more efficient work environment. Fire fighting may be more visible and dramatic, but the quiet, consistent effort of fire prevention is the foundation of sustainable success.

    Rewarding fire prevention these efforts is not just fair—it’s a strategic move that can lead to more successful, smoothly run projects. So, let’s put the spotlight on the fire preventers in our teams and acknowledge the significant role they play in our projects’ success.


    Bryan Green

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