How to stop firefighting and find more time for creativity
Whac-A-Mole is an arcade game invented in the 1970s. It involves hitting pop-up moles (not real ones!) with a mallet as soon as they emerge from their holes. The challenge is that as fast as you’re bopping one mole back down into its hole, another one pops up! Have a look at the video.
As an 80s teenager, I spent a lot of time playing Whac-A-Mole in the arcades of Skegness, the seaside holiday town where I grew up. We also had a pink, fluffy version of the game called ‘Flump’, but I’m not sure if anyone will remember it?
Whac-A-Mole is a great metaphor for reactive leadership. We give high energy and focus to whatever priority pops up there and then, but another priority, problem or even crisis pops up somewhere else when we aren’t looking. Sometimes great opportunities slip past us because we simply haven’t noticed them, or don’t have the physical or mental bandwidth to pursue them.
The unexpected happens to us all. There are times when we really do need to drop almost everything and get something sorted. It’s part of life.
What I see all too often in businesses of all sizes, though, is that Whac-A-Mole management has become a habit. It’s an engrained part of the culture.
The challenge is that it can feel really good. Some people who enjoy reactive management can find it exciting and rewarding, and once we have whacked some moles successfully, we temporarily feel like superheroes! Businesses often reinforce this by rewarding such superhero-ness, even it’s just through admiration and thanks.
Whac-A-Mole management might also help some of us feel like we are being busy and productive. We can get pleasure from being busy. By being busy, I mean being on a constant treadmill of activity from one end of the day to the other, always on the phone and email, taking action and making decisions without stopping to think about what all the activity is for, and how effectively it is assisting us in reaching our most important goals.
We might like being busy for its own sake, or because we find sitting still is boring. It can bring a range of rewards, depending on the individual. Some examples are:
- If we are very busy it means that our jobs (and therefore, we) must be very important.
- If we are very busy, it must mean that we are doing a great job because we are showing how committed we are.
- If we are very busy, it means that we don’t have time to do those things we don’t want to do, even if we say we want to do them and think that we really do!
- If we are very busy, others will marvel at just how well we manage our busy-ness.
Some of these may not apply directly to you, but they might be relevant to the people you work with.
Being busy is not the same as being efficient and effective. The problem with busy-ness is that it does not allow us to access the full potential of our brain power. It’s like driving without changing gear, even when another gear is more appropriate, comfortable and efficient. Busy-ness gets in the way of reflections from big, strategic thinking to smaller, mini-genius style insights that can make a difference to you, your team or business.
The Firefighting Loop
Some people (and organisations) consequently get stuck in a firefighting loop, like the one shown here, which I have adapted from an article in the Harvard Business Review:
When I share my version of the firefighting loop with executive coaching clients and workshop delegates, the principles always resonate. Here’s a walk-through of the process it describes:
- New problems and opportunities are constantly presenting themselves, creating a growing backlog of problems and challenges.
- Managers are under pressure to perform. They set priorities and may focus on achieving quick results.
- Where a new problem is urgent, or a crisis, it becomes a priority. It gets solved. Sometimes a permanent solution that prevents the same thing happening again is found through proper investigation, exploration and effort. Alternatively, a makeshift or only partially considered solution is developed, meaning that the problem joins a queue of other problems that are likely to recur because they’ve not been fully addressed.
- The repeat problems then join the new problems and opportunities that are constantly streaming into the beginning of the loop, and the process is repeated.
I must admit that I secretly enjoy a bit of mole-whacking from time-to-time myself. It can feel good once the challenge has passed, there’s a huge BUT:
- Working like this can become a habit. For those who enjoy it, it’s quite addictive.
- When overdone it’s exhausting, even if we don’t realise it at the time. It becomes our new normal, and it’s easy to forget that there is another way.
- Too much mole-whacking will stunt personal and business growth, as the balance between day-to-day delivery and taking longer-term development action is ‘off’.
- It really does reduce creativity and innovation. Granted, to whack some of the moles, creativity may be needed, but it’s not the sort of deep creativity that could have prevented the problem or issue in the first place.
It all reminds me of the opening paragraph of A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh:
“Here is Edward Bear coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way… if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it!”
The unrecognised superheroes in business are those who see that a mole could pop up, and have the foresight and creativity to take action in good time to stop that happening. They also put in place preventative strategies to reduce risk, as well as create and optimise opportunities. This feels very different from mole-whacking and the shift is more mentally and personally challenging than practically so. Some of my customers who have moved from operational to strategic roles as part of their career progression say they really notice a difference, and almost feel guilty because they feel like they are doing less, even though they are not. The work they are doing is just of a different kind.
I appreciate that this may be extra-challenging if you work in a wider culture that is teeming with mole-whacking activity and expectations. My advice for you is to focus on what you can control and influence within how you organise yourself and the work that you are responsible for.
How to Break Your Reactive Leadership Cycle
Here are some simple and effective steps that you can take to break your reactive leadership cycle. Each of these steps is supported by experience-based evidence:
- Self-awareness is key. Once you’ve recognised that you’re doing Whac-A-Mole management, you can change it if you choose, but you’ve got to spot it and then acknowledge it first.
- If you are doing a lot of mole-whacking, instead of trying to change this all at once, focus on your next new big project or goal, and resolve to take a different, more pre-emptive, structured and creative approach to it. Then do the same with your next project, the one after that and so on. Over time you will gradually shift from a reactive to a proactive leadership approach.
- This one is an oldie but a goodie! Be ruthless about creating some time each week – even if it’s half an hour, for the important and non-urgent things you want to achieve. My definition of ‘important things’ are those tasks or initiatives that don’t need to be completed right away, often take an extended period of time to get done, and will add significant value or give real benefits when they’ve been achieved. Examples include many learning and development activities, working to improve systems and processes, R&D, ongoing stakeholder engagement.
- Check out our Idea Time programme that is designed to help you spend just 30 minutes a week working towards one of your Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals.
The benefits of becoming less reactive in your approach will pay big dividends when it comes to the productivity of your creative thinking. If you read my last blog, How to Lose Your Inhibitions To Think More Creatively, you’ll know that moving your mind away from immediate challenges relaxes your frontal lobes, allowing your ideas to incubate and come to the fore.
You’ll also become more in the habit of finding permanent solutions to many of your recurring challenges, which in itself encourages deeper creative problem-solving capability. Our brains have the fabulous feature of plasticity, which means the more we practise our creative thinking skills, the better, more natural and more efficient creative thinkers we become.
And of course, by not spending so much time dealing with recurring issues, you will benefit from the opportunity of freeing your mind to develop creative ideas and plans that will take your business forward.
I hope you join me on my quest to minimise Whac-A-Mole management and to release more time and space for creativity! I’d love to hear about the challenges you have with this, and any strategies you use to reduce reactive management. Do get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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