If Putting Out Fires Is Your Office Job, Time To Build Some Framework

Do urgent, day-to-day decisions constantly threaten to overwhelm you? If so, it’s time to create process and routine, and shift your focus to strategic issues.

If Putting Out Fires Is Your Office Job, Time To Build Some Framework

How many business owners or department heads are bogged down with urgent, short-term issues while neglecting important, strategic issues? A show of hands, please.


I recently met with an executive to discuss creating the operational infrastructure (systems, processes, operating guidelines) for his company. He is overwhelmed fighting fires; he barely had a few minutes to talk. He’s grown from 10 to about 40 people in the last year or so and plans to grow another 750% (not a typo!) by the end of the year. That’s meteoric growth.

Last month, he said we could talk about his operational infrastructure needs in another month. This month, he said we could talk in another couple of weeks. Will we really talk about his needs in a week or two? Or, will urgent, short-term issues take precedence yet again?

He mentioned something quite interesting during the conversation: he knows he’s spending at least 80% of his time on urgent, tactical issues and, at best, 20% on the important, strategic issues. He knows he needs to get his focus reversed or it will negatively impact his larger commitments to his investors.

Yet, he continues to defer taking action while knowing additional staff and projects only add to the complexity of the company each week. If he’s to alter the course of being overwhelmed, he needs to take action. The problems are not going to correct themselves.

I’ve been in his shoes. I’ve inherited departments that were just shy of complete chaos. How many companies or departments plan for and take action for achieving the kind of success our aforementioned executive needs to realize in the next 9 months? Not many. And, what is the likely implication? The company or department hits the wall and makes mistakes creating costly rework and resulting in delays impacting customers. The tribal knowledge breaks down as more and more business execution errors creep in. He might even find team members fleeing the building faster than he can add new ones.


If there is no operational framework for a business or department, leadership will be reactive to the problems and issues that arise. It makes the company people dependent rather than process dependent to not have the “this is how we do it here” all figured out. Without an appropriate operational infrastructure, there will be ad hoc solutions for every project and with every team. That’s not the formula for great business execution.

For operational infrastructure to be valuable, it has to:

  • be tailored, lean and highly responsive
  • provide a clear message that “this is how we do this here”
  • support the essential needs of the business without being overly burdening
  • provide execution control to monitor progress and support collaboration within the team and externally with partners and customers
  • be at an investment level that offers a solid return-on-investment
  • add demonstrable value.

Prospective consulting clients are often fearful about just what entering into a relationship with a consultant represents. Some worry more about the downside than the upside. Perhaps that is my industry’s fault. The practices I employ don’t look like the practices most of my counterparts use, practices that will change across my industry in time. The focus needs to be on rapidly producing outcomes for clients while taking the focus and worry away from our fees. It’s now about how much a client pays and all about the return-on-investment.

What did the executive indicate were his immediate concerns about moving forward with a project?

  • How much time it will take him and his team away from their business?
  • How much it will cost?

How much time will be required? A lot less than he could possibly imagine. Several years ago, a client was trying to assign people to work with me on the development of operations infrastructure. As each executive tried to identify who the “best person would be” for me to work with, they always said, “Well, she’s too busy” or “I don’t think he has the bandwidth right now.”


I finally looked at the executives and said, “Just how much time do you think I will require from each of these people in the course of this effort?” The executives thought that was a terrific question and requested I answer it.

I assured them that, for this particular project, I’d probably need 30 minutes a week and, at most, one hour of each person’s time. My current client within the company assured them that I worked extremely efficiently with him and he believed that my estimate was realistic. The relief on their faces was palpable. I told them I preferred highly-focused one-on-one meetings and would only bring the group together as a whole if there was a good reason to. No half-day or full-day sessions for me; I detest meetings like that. My role was to take the lead and create a process that best served their needs so when the time came to sign-off, it would be a simple as we would have already worked through the tough issues.

Processes that impact customers and internal business execution certainly need to be addressed. Typically sales and business development processes must be addressed. Client project delivery and execution must be addressed. If you are doing a lot of hiring, there are things that can be done to improve that critical business process. You need to look at the critical processes that can make or break the operation and ensure they are appropriately addressed.

Too many businesses and departments struggle because of single-minded attention for the urgent, day-to-day, tactical issues, not the important, strategic issues. When you tame the urgent, tactical issues and make them routine, you create the headroom to focus on the important, strategic issues.

— Dave Gardner can be reached on Twitter and via his website at Gardner & Associates Consulting. Check out his video describing why he’s in business.


[Image: Flickr user Gwenael Piaser]

About the author

Dave Gardner is a management consultant, speaker, blogger and author based in Silicon Valley. He's been in the front row for the birth and evolution of Silicon Valley, the innovation capital of the world