Why Innovators Make Terrible Firefighters

Why Innovators Make Terrible FirefightersLet me first acknowledge that this post has nothing to do with real firefighters – you know, the guys who actually risk their lives in burning buildings. This post has to do with business “fire fighters”, those mid and senior level executives who rush into “critical” situations to clean up terrible customer service or rush to fill a product gap. They are “fire fighters” in the same way that NFL players refer to themselves as “warriors”. Last time I looked, no one was shooting at an NFL quarterback, or detonating improvised explosive devices on a football field. We could start a whole blog about the expansion and misuse of language in a business setting when we compare managers to warriors or fire fighters, but that’s a blog for a different day.

The urgent over the important

Every day, executives and managers in corporations rush around, trying to keep the status quo working under optimum conditions. Ideally, nothing, and I mean nothing, should divert the attention of the highly tuned business processes from their regular assignments. No distractions, no diversions, just focus, focus, focus. Except when there is a “fire”. Typically a fire in this sense is an angry customer, a competitor with a new product or service, a major product failure or quality issue. These fires throw everything to the wind. Once a fire has been declared, it’s Katy bar the door. The designated “fire fighter” can do almost anything, disrupt almost any process, reverse almost any decision to put out the fire. The one time that almost anyone can subvert the existing processes with immunity is in the face of an overwhelming immediate problem that everyone agrees must be solved.

But look more closely. Fire fighters are far more destructive than creative. Real fire fighters kick in doors and windows, risk their lives to save people and property. Often, in order to save a building or neighboring dwellings, they have to destroy a property in order to save others. And, once the fire is safely extinguished, real fire fighters may assess the cause of the fire but do nothing to start reconstruction. Business fire fighters follow the same approach. Their focus is to fix the issue as quickly as possible, patch over problems, quickly resolve situations. They don’t stick around to rebuild and repair. Returning operations to normal is what a business fire fighter is supposed to do.

Why fighter fighters are terrible innovators

Business fire fighting makes for terrible innovation. This is the ultimate example of the urgent over the important. Fire fighting is the triumph of convergence over divergence. A pressing problem needs to be solved immediately, and the existing operating system needs to be repaired and brought back on line as quickly as possible. In fire fighting, there’s no time for research, or reflection, or idea generation. It’s get the thing back on line as quickly as possible, with as little disruption as possible. It’s perfectly fine to knock down some pre-conceived notions or limitations, just so we can return to status quo as quickly as possible. And don’t worry, we’ll clean up the debris later.

Corporate fire fighters don’t have the time to do any real innovation work, and frankly that’s not their job. Their job is to restore order as quickly as possible, not necessarily to improve or disrupt the process but simply to restore the process. But as fires increase, simply patching and restoring the process takes precedence over reviewing, rethinking and dramatically improving the process. As more and more fires erupt, there’s less and less time for innovation, and more and more experience in fire fighting. But fire fighting doesn’t improve the situation – it merely restores order to a point where everyone is moderately satisfied. All the energy expended doesn’t move the organization forward, and in some cases processes and capabilities revert. And while all that energy is expended simply restoring order, markets and customers are moving on. They aren’t waiting for you to get your act together, patiently waiting for new products and services. They are shopping your competitors.

Innovators are terrible fire fighters

Innovation, by its very nature, is a terrible toolset to use to put out fires. Innovation is a divergent/convergent process, which means it seeks to expand the scope of an opportunity or problem, explore the boundaries and discover new needs and expectations. If a fire is burning, most people want to rush to put it out – they want to rush to solutions, rather than explore possibilities. Innovators don’t rush – they learn, explore, discover and then create completely new and unexpected solutions that don’t patch the existing but create something more powerful and more relevant. Innovation is proactive, seeking to cause problems that other firms must respond to, rather than waiting to respond to market actions and competitive threats. While fire fighters rush in after a problem is identified and attempt to return to status quo, innovators predict where opportunities lie and understand the potential solutions, creating problems for competitors and frequently disrupting internal processes and decisionmaking along the way. Innovators aren’t equipped to rush, to skip steps or to restore order to the status quo. They existing to discover, understand and bring to market solutions that may disrupt the market paradigms rather than repair existing processes or products.

Where’s the expertise?

The problem resides in the fact that executives and managers have far more comfort and expertise fighting fires. There’s more glamor in the role, the results are more highly celebrated and many good executives made their careers on solving big problems and putting out fires. The more comfortable people are in a particular setting, the more likely they are to favor that setting and reject or avoid settings that they don’t understand or where they don’t have skills. And if you aren’t careful, innovation activities become overwhelmed and subsumed into fire fighting, since that’s where the experience and glory lies.

But at the end of a firefighting exercise what do you have? Smoldering ruins, hopefully running at peak historical efficiency with no noticeable improvement. A return to the status quo, with no new features or benefits, while customers are moving on, expecting and demanding more. There are three things we need to do quickly:

1. Divorce the concepts of “fire fighting” and innovation. While both are about solving problems, they use very different approaches and time scales. They are different and need to be treated differently

2. Demand more innovation, to cause fires for other firms. Most firms need to be far more proactive, creating problems and challenges for other firms rather than responding to market and competitive threats.

3. Make innovation as rewarding as fighting fires. Today, a manager who is “fighting fires” is celebrated. Innovation, as a more explorative, time consuming and contemplative activity, doesn’t seem like real work and doesn’t solve immediate problems. Until innovating is held in as high regard as firefighting, managers and executives will continue to revert to fire fighting as the chosen path.

image credit: brave businessman image from bigstock


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Jeffrey PhillipsJeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of Relentless Innovation and the blog Innovate on Purpose.

Jeffrey Phillips




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No Comments

  1. John Maloney on March 12, 2014 at 1:10 pm

    Not so fast. What if your responsibilities are firefighting + innovation, say, for example, an entrepreneur?!?

    Yeas, sure, it would be nice to ‘divorce’ responsibilities, it’s just not realistic.

    Look, the key here is not to separate anything. Rather, it is to reveal, groom and nurture different network patterns for different scenarios and outcomes.

    It’s 2014. There is no way anyone can say I am this or that. Labels are dumb; networks are smart. Be realistic. See:


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