How to Manage Through Dumpster Fires

Managers who reward fire drills create arsonists. This is one of the first bits of advice I received after starting work in the tech industry. At first it seemed obvious—why would any team intentionally create a crisis just so they could step in at the last second and save it?

And then …

Prevention starts with the small stuff.

I had been working on project that spanned three groups. Everyone had the same expectations and shared goals. Everyone had committed to developing across teams in a collaborative approach.

Everything was great, right up until the point it wasn’t. Then, everything was very, very wrong.

Status updates from one team member stopped going out. Giving the benefit of doubt, stakeholders reminded him to please keep everyone apprised. Another week went by with no status. By the next progress review session, his schedule dates were blank. This one person had continued to accept more work than he could handle and had hidden the lack of progress until it was too late. Now he had no idea when the project could complete and became openly hostile if people asked questions.

Fast forward three weeks—the same person managed to discover a solution, worked around the clock (while dragging in other team members), and saved the day by delivering only a few days late.

So, what’s the problem, you ask? After all, he stepped up and met the commitments—against all odds. Management felt the same way. They went so far as to acknowledge the extra effort he put into the project. Guess what happened then? That’s right—six months later, the entire operation was churning through talent because project execution had devolved into a chaotic series of events. And constant fire drills. And there were the arsonists, who received public accolades for their tireless efforts.

People talk about group dynamics almost as something that simply exists. Here is a tree, here is a mountain, and over there is an accounting department that is impossibly bureaucratic. Take a step back and look again. That accounting department is a system of humans, and humans use group behaviors to order themselves.

Group behaviors develop over time. Depending on how long a team has been together, unspoken rules can be surprisingly difficult to undo. Even people who are unhappy with a situation can be resistant to changes when what has become ‘normal’ is deeply ingrained.

Prevention starts with the small stuff. Do you have someone who always agrees to take on extra work, but only when the ask has a great deal of visibility or executive face time? This is a tricky one to balance, because the arsonist will either hide when things go wrong or dump less visible work on another teammate to offset. Keep an eye on exchanges between people and how tasks migrate across the group.

Also, avoid the trap of ‘group think’ by introducing diverse perspectives. Collaboration is more effective if people are encouraged to share opposing viewpoints. Is your team comprised mostly of referrals from existing members? This can contribute to a very myopic approach to problem solving. Make sure there is a consistent infusion of new ideas and people from different backgrounds.

Regular check-ins with direct reports can also help you identify overloads before they get out of hand. Have people talk through everything they’re working on, and remember to ask questions. If they can only provide high-level insight, it could be getting to a point of being overwhelmed. Is one person working on every critical or high profile initiative? Start asking yourself why, and what happens if things go sideways.

Prevention can also come after a crisis. Make the effort and take time after each fire drill to objectively review what happened. Go deep and really get into the why. Don’t just ask for a report, give it a cursory glance, and move on to the next thing. Without falling into a blaming or finger pointing session, share high level results as a way to improve. This conveys to each person on the team that you genuinely care about a healthy, and sustainable, workplace. Listen to their feedback and keep the door open.

Last, and possibly most difficult, is understanding that not every arsonist can be saved. If you find yourself repeatedly stepping in to take the wheel, it may be time to evaluate what’s in the team’s best interest. Yes, it’s difficult to remove someone from a project or re-organize their role. Constantly hiring people and surviving churn is also difficult. The team is watching this unfold from a very different perspective than you possibly could. The actions and decisions set a clear tone around acceptable group behaviors—more so than what you communicate directly.

Take the long-view on this. Remember, only you can prevent dumpster fires.

Originally published at on November 14, 2017