Project Firefighting – Lessons Learned from Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow

Many a great catastrophe has started from humble roots. Consider the Great Chicago Fire of 1871: The initial cause of the fire is still unknown (popular legend holds that Catherine O’Leary’s barn on the south side of Chicago was set ablaze when her errant cow, Daisy, upended a lantern), but that it left the city devastated is incontrovertible. Though the loss of a barn is no small tragedy, further calamity could have been avoided if the response had been swift, measured and well-implemented. Instead, firefighters were initially dispatched to the wrong location. Corrected information was later relayed to them, but only after a significant delay. By the time firefighters arrived at Mrs. O’Leary’s barn, the conflagration was well and truly underway, and had in fact ignited a number of nearby structures. Firefighters and residents alike then assumed the spreading inferno would be quelled by the natural fire break of the Chicago River – it wasn’t. The string of delays, insufficient responses and incorrect assumptions resulted in the decimation of 34 city blocks, which ultimately left nearly a third of Chicago’s population homeless.

As every firefighter knows, it’s only prudent to expect the occasional fire. Savvy project management consulting professionals are no different, and they understand that no amount of planning can eliminate every potential problem. Your ability to control, mitigate and stamp out the inevitable fire will depend heavily on avoidance – planning that reduces risk and exposure – and rallying a quick and appropriate response when something does go wrong.

Good project management planning requires the ability to identify all the what-ifs that might come to pass: What if we don’t have consensus on the objectives? What if a potential risk bites us? What if a key stakeholder leaves? Your team and its stakeholders must agree on a number of factors before you move ahead. Get your assumptions into the open – are they correct? Determine the risks you’re likely to encounter – does everyone understand their potential impact? Put your scope front and center – do others have different expectations? Ensuring that everyone involved in your project has the same information, assumptions, and understandings is critical for steering your project safely through any problems you may encounter.

Once your team has ferreted out every potential problem and risk, it’s time to prepare strategies to avoid issues where possible, and mitigate the damage done by problems that do crop up. The energy you put into this phase of the project could save you headaches – as well as real disasters – later.

Remember the following 5 steps when responding to a project fire.

Identification: Most problems don’t announce themselves until they’re wreaking widespread havoc on your project. Identifying issues quickly takes diligence and attention, so be sure each member of your team knows their responsibilities inside and out.

Communication: When a problem or potential problem is discovered, it must be quickly communicated to the rest of team. Other areas might avoid being impacted if given early warning.

Strategy: Devising and implementing a successful solution takes teamwork and focus. Your response must be feasible and appropriate to the problem, and you need to identify all aspects of the issue as well potential negative effects your solution may have.

Implementation: Assign actions to appropriate team members, and put your solution into practice.

Review: Examine the original issue, and ensure the problems have been solved without inadvertently creating tangential issues that could themselves become fires. If there are still unresolved issues, then you haven’t yet put out the fire – continue addressing the problems until the team is confident there isn’t anything else burning.

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