What do you do when your team and budget is too small and you're caught up in fire fighting? originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.
We've all been there. You have normal attrition during a company hiring freeze and your team gets stretched thin. Some other project has priority and there's no money to fix genuine problems with more than bandaids. A situation that was expected to be painful in the short term has become the new status quo.
So how do you deal?
Step 1: Understand exactly where you are.
Take a really close look at the position you're in right now and the resources you have to work with. Set aside the time to do this because it's critical. If you jump constantly from one fire to the next you'll never have time to repair the fire damage. As a leader, your job is to chart the course and that means you may need to step back from the front lines and get some perspective.
Take inventory of every fire that's burning, the casualties of triage (all those things that your team isn't getting done because they're too busy with fires), the resources you do have (even when they're limited) and what your deliverables are.
Take a close look. Challenge your perception with actual data. When fires are burning you need to recognize when you just have a lot of smoke somewhere and where you have a genuine blaze.
Step 2: Map your path out.
This is important. Once you know where you are you need to look for ways out and prioritize them. There are three fundamental categories that should get your attention:
Mission critical fires: If it's mission critical, it gets done. Remember, though, it's very rare that everything is mission critical. Sanity check yourself as needed on how important a given task may be so you can put things in their place.
Resource drains: Even if a task is low priority, if it's a large resource drain it should get your attention. You may eliminate the task (not important), you may choose to put a great deal of resource into the task to get it complete or to a state where it stops being a resource drain. Either way, if it's taking a lot of your resources, it gets your attention.
Things that are out of bounds: We get these things in every organization. Work that our team has taken on because someone needed a hand with it and then it sort of got stuck to us or requests that feel easier to just deal with rather than route people off to some other team. Things that are consuming your limited resources that are out of bounds need to get addressed to free up those resources.
One other thing that you need to be aware of when building your map: Know your pain points. Anticipate, as best you're able, where making any of the changes in direction you need to make will be painful. If you know where you expect pain you can both work to mitigate it, and you can handle the pain better when it happens.
Step 3: Communicate and generate buy-in.
Communication goes two ways. You'll need to get your senior leaders (as appropriate) and / or your fellow leaders on board with the path you're about to head down. Be open to taking input and revising the path if necessary but you're going to need organizational support (even if it's just approval) to get things accomplished.
You also need to communicate to your team. Make expectations clear. Discuss the expected pain points. Talk about how to handle them. Again, if your team identifies areas for improvement or unexpected serious problems, address them. If your team isn't on board, you will fail.
Step 4: Execute.
Many well-planned turnarounds fail here. Even a mediocre plan can pay dividends with good execution. A brilliant plan with poor execution actively makes things worse.
When you hit your pain points, assess them. Are they as bad as you expected? Better? Worse? If it's within the parameters you deemed acceptable, accept it! Don't give up the first time things get rough; you know going into this that things may need to get better before they get worse.
Yes, you may need to change course in the face of the unexpected, and yes, pain points may be more painful than you are able to deal with, but don't fold before you've gotten started.
Last thing: Recognize the Unwinnable.
I hate mentioning this but it's important to acknowledge. Sometimes, organizations fail because the expectations aren't reasonable, key factors beyond your control cannot be changed, and the fires we're putting out in our own teams are burning in so many places across the organization that the building is coming down.
If the ship can be saved, save it. If it can't be saved, do what's right for your people, and do the best you can for the customers and clients that you support for as long as you reasonably can.
Getting a team out of fire-fighting and back into a more stable operating posture is never a fun task, but the biggest asset you have is the ability to pull back from the flames and assess. If you can do that, it's much easier to find a way forward for your team that doesn't leave them all burned.
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