Are You a Planner or a Firefighter?

By Jan Pridgen.

I recently co-instructed a project management course that focuses on the fundamentals of project management. So as expected, we covered the phases of project management initiating or defining, planning, executing, monitoring and controlling, and closing. This course was conducted for a client and was customized to meet their needs. So, I was intrigued when I read one of the participant’s comments which stated that the course was set up with the majority of the time spent on planning which is not realistic in his fast-paced environment. The participant went on to state he would rather see more time spent on working and re-working timelines as that would be more relevant to his organization.

What? Isn’t planning what project management is all about? Yes, it was a true statement from the participant that the majority of the time in the course is spent on planning, because good planning is what sets the foundation for a successful project. Having said that, just what is project planning? Here’s one definition that I like: Project planning is a discipline for stating how to complete a project within a certain timeframe, usually with defined stages, and with designated resources. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Then why do we seem to gravitate more toward fire fighting?

When poking around on Google to see what has been written out in the blogosphere regarding this topic, I came across a blog written in 2009 that challenges project managers to ask if themselves if they are fire fighters or forest rangers. Think about that for a minute. Both are admirable professions. We typically see fire fighters as the very busy heroes putting out fires with a great sense of purpose. When we put out a fire with our own projects, we have a great sense of accomplishment, we are the hero and we experience somewhat of a high which…be careful…can be additive. Successful fire fighters in organizations are typically rewarded for their great skills. The problem with constant fire fighting is that you are so busy that you are unable to think long-term. Also, it’s easier to address an issue right in front of you than to anticipate and plan for the issue and prevent it.

That’s what brings us to the forest rangers. Just what is it that they do? Well, they prevent fires, right? How can we as project managers prevent the fires? Well, you guessed it…we can plan, plan, and plan some more. We plan by relying on past experience and knowing where the potential fires may occur. We have learned from previous projects what conditions may cause a fire to start and we put measures in place to prevent them. We pull together the right people, we plan how we will communication, we plan how we will manage the risk, we anticipate change and how we will control it, we break down the work into manageable and assignable tasks, we plan how long these tasks will take and which are dependent on others and which can be done in parallel, and we think about what the project costs will be. Yeah, it takes some time to do all this in the beginning, but this time is well spent if we are preventing the time- and effort-consuming fires that occur when we don’t plan.

Based on what I was hearing during this recent project management class, the organizational culture may have something to do with the participant’s comment. Project managers in that organization are not allowed the time to plan in the beginning, instead they are allowed to throw additional money, time, and other resources at the fires that flare up. Hmmm…I guess they never heard the saying; failing to plan is planning to fail.

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  1. #1 by PM Hut on October 24, 2011 - 7:07 am

    Hi Jan,

    Your post remind me of a post I have published almost exactly a year ago, Project Management and Firefighting.

    By the way, I think your post is very well written and will benefit other project managers, and that’s why I would like to republish it on PM Hut. Please either email me or contact me through the “Contact Us” form on the PM Hut website in case you’re OK with this.

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