The hero culture is alive and well in IT. They’re sometimes known as the “Firefighters”. These are the heroes who come in at all hours of the day and night to put water on the latest IT fire. In many organizations a “good” fire fighter is admired and appreciated more than a good developer or other IT contributor. Why shouldn’t they be admired, they come in at 2:00 AM on Sunday and resolve a major failure that was interrupting the business. What’s not to like?
Well, let me first say that I don’t have anything against the Fire Fighter. They are very martyr-like, and it can be easy to appreciate that quality, as long as it doesn’t come with a bomb vest. What I don’t like is the culture of fire fighting that we as IT leaders perpetuate. The real issue is whether or not someone in the organization has the courage to get off the exercise wheel for a minute and say “this has got to stop”. As a general rule, those closest to the issue (fire is a great example) aren’t in the best position to determine how to avoid similar issues in the future.
The following is an almost verbatim conversation I had with a Global Director of Infrastructure I worked with for a short time;
Me: We’re not making progress on our project to integrate NewCo. We’ve got to find a way to reduce the level of interrupt-related work the team is tasked to perform.
Director of Global Infrastructure; I’m sorry, but I don’t have time to deal with this right now, we’re all too busy fighting fires.
Do you see any problems with this conversation? How will you ever have time to do productive work if all you’re ever doing is fixing messes that were created because you didn’t have time to do productive work!!
It may sound odd, but sometimes laziness has its place in the business. Some of the best IT folks I know work very hard, but they don’t realize they’re working hard because the work they’re doing is helping them avoid work they don’t like doing. Every IT organization needs a few leaders and contributors who can look at the job at hand and say, “How can I fix this so I never have to do it again?”
If you celebrate the contributions of firefighter martyrs, you are in effect rewarding bad behavior. There may be a wide range of reasons for the fires in the first place, but you certainly don’t want to make it worse by establishing the wrong success motivators.
In closing, I suggest stepping back from the fire, no matter how fierce the heat is and look for the true organizational and technological root causes. Once you’ve found them and fixed them you’ll be in a position to start bringing real value to the business, instilling pride in your team and increasing job satisfaction and therefore employee retention.
So the next time you see a fire, get out a stick and a marshmallow and put away the fire extinguisher.
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