An inordinate amount of your work time may be devoted to “fighting fires” and dealing with last-minute “emergency” situations. The “fire” may be an irate customer; a proposal for prospective client required by close of business today, or even the “normal” day-to-day tasks that were supposed to be done last week and have now become a new fire because last week’s fires kept you from doing the “routine” tasks.

Lack of Planning?

There is a saying “A lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.” While not all things can be planned (like the last minute request for a proposal), if you have a plan in place for responding to an urgent request, it doesn’t have to become a blazing fire roaring through your organization and disrupting everything and everyone.

Planning is critical to every organization’s ability to adapt and respond to new demands. When the organization sets parameters, priorities and decision criteria in advance, the day-to-day items necessary but not “urgent” won’t become an emergency at a later time.

Make a New Plan, Stan

Let’s consider a real-life example. Organization PDQ has the typical everyday tasks like paying bills, ordering materials, providing products and services to customers that need to get done. PDQ also has four major projects/tasks to complete: next year’s budget, which is due to the board in three weeks; year-end close on December 31; strategic planning for the next five years, due April 1; and a multi-million dollar funding proposal due January 31. Each of these projects is significant. Each will have a different impact on the organization in the long term and short term. PDQ has 15 full-time employees, an interim CEO; a new first-time controller and several consultants including strategic planners, auditors (for year-end financials), tax accountants and a few others to “help” with the extra work.

PDQ has decided to utilize temporaries to deal with the excess demands of the non-routine activities including the budget, strategic planning and project proposal, and leave the year-end close activities to the new controller (we’ll call him “Stan”). The CEO has a policy of “not getting in the details;” he just wants to know the “big picture.” However, any time the CEO is presented with the “big picture,” he has questions about every number and where they came from and who did it and why and does it include X, Y and Z—the little details are the focus of his questions. He also has a habit of requiring Stan to answer questions and generate added detail to support questions about past spending. On Monday, when Stan is focused on getting all the financial information into the system and ready to go to the tax accountant, the CEO asks for a detailed analysis of spending on consultants over the past two years, plus a projection of the new year’s spending and copies of all the existing contracts with each consultant, and what the status is of each consultant’s “projects.”

Stan asks when he needs the analysis done. “Right now” says the CEO. So Stan, being the good and eager new employee, quickly shifts to doing the analysis and puts the deliverables for year end on hold. After all, how long could it take? The next day the Stan is still working on the consultant analysis. Meanwhile the tax accountant and auditor are calling, wanting to know what the holdup is. So Stan jumps back into doing the year-end close. Soon Stan looks up to see the CEO, fully expecting to be asked about the consultant analysis. As he starts to give a status update, the CEO waves his hand and says, “Oh, don’t worry about that right now. You’re giving me too much detail. I want the big picture. But what I really need in the next hour is to see the year-end numbers. I want to go over them with you so that we can get them to the tax accountant. He just called wanting to know when he will get them.”

The controller explains that the year-end numbers aren’t ready because he was doing the requested analysis on the consultants. He can tell from the look on the CEO’s face that the answer is unacceptable. The CEO says “get them done” and goes back down the hall to his corner office.

Soon after the CEO departs, the Chairman of the Board calls to request some financial information needed for the strategic plan. The strategic planning consultants need this year’s financials, the budget for the upcoming year and a forecast of revenues and costs for existing projects for the next five years. Get it done!

Well, the controller is fighting not one or two little fires, but a major conflagration! He is about to be consumed by the flames of “right now” versus having a plan that includes priorities, designated resources (people) and leadership that is accountable for the execution and maintaining a perspective on the priorities.

Nothing is getting done. Stan and the organization are working in chaos as the fires spread. Do this. Do that. No this first. Where’s this? What are you doing? I need. Who’s working on this?

To top it all off, spending has gotten out of control on—you guessed it—consultants! Because the contractors and consultants are constantly buffeted by winds of change and request for this or that and deadlines and deliverables come and go. By April the organization has spent not only the budget for the entire year on consulting, but also enough for the next three to five years (remember that strategic “plan”?).

Stan finally has enough. He walks into the CEO’s office and goes out on medical leave (for stress). He will be gone for the next month (at least). What’s an organization to do?

Have a Plan, Work the Plan, and Be Accountable

Every organization needs to have a set of clear priorities and a plan for how to handle/balance the mix of the day-to-day tasks and the unexpected, unavoidable tasks that will pop up. One of the critical elements to establishing priorities and making a plan is to embed in the organization (specifically its leaders and managers) that not every request should be treated as a “must do now” item. Even when managers would like information “now” it is important for the organization and its team members to be able to recognize when something is a want versus a need (e.g., to prevent an event from occurring, respond to a limited time opportunity).

In addition, when moving your organization from constant firefighting to running more efficiently and effectively, “trying” to change isn’t change. Make the decision to change and just do it! It may not be pretty and it will be hard, but in the long run your business and your team will benefit, and ultimately experience not only higher profits but also higher morale and employee retention.

Author: Lea A. Strickland, MBA CMA CFM CBM GMC

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