Nonprofit Strategy & Management in a New Zeitgeist
|Preventing beats fighting|
Remember: Only YOU can prevent [forest] fires. Do you find yourself spending most of your time responding to other people’s crises? Is your day consumed with disruptive activities? Answering email? Responding to texts and voicemail? Are you constantly reacting, with little time left for acting? If so, you (and most likely your co-workers too) are probably not doing the important preventive work that must be done so these urgent fires don’t break out. There is a way around this. But first you must fully embrace the notion that firefighting is not your job (unless, of course, you work in a firehouse and slide down a pole when an alarm goes off).
Firefighting, sadly, is a lot easier than fire preventing. It takes comparatively little thought. You just get into “action mode” and can be really busy. Busy resembles productive. And you feel like a hero. But, when you really stop to ponder the matter, wouldn’t it be better if you allowed the important, planful, preventive work to erupt from the constraints you’ve placed on it so those fires never occurred?
|Here I come to save the day!|
Firefighters are only needed when you/everyone is neglecting the important activities of preventing fires. Important activities are those that have outcomes designed to get you to your goals. Urgent activities are often associated with someone else’s goals. Even if you’re a boss, and think it’s your job to help staff accomplish their goals, you undoubtedly still have your own agenda to accomplish. And maybe your agenda is putting in place the systems/procedures/training/staffing that would help your staff avoid the fires?
Getting the right job done requires prioritizing and time management. In “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” Stephen Covey distinguishes again and again between the urgent and the important, noting that focusing on the former makes us dependent (all of our work is reactive) while the latter gives us independence (we can take initiative that propels us toward our own goals).
- Put first things first. Begin with the end in mind. Prioritize, plan and execute your daily/weekly tasks based on what’s important rather than what’s urgent. Ask yourself: Will working on this today get me towards my goals?
- Take responsibility for your choices. Embrace the fact that your decisions determine how effective you’ll be in accomplishing your goals. If you choose to react, then you’re not going to get where you want to go. It’s your choice. If you choose to work on somebody else’s problem, it’s not their fault.
- Block off time on your calendar. When you have an important project to accomplish, make some inviolate time. Treat it like an appointment. Don’t look at your email or cell phone during this period. If you must, get out of the office and go someplace else where you won’t be distracted. Trust me; in the few hours you’re ‘disconnected’ the world won’t come to an end.
- Delegate urgent items. Keep your priorities in mind and don’t fall back on the tendency to think either (a) “This is a quick fix” (as a general rule, there’s no such thing), or (b) “I can do this faster/better than anyone else” (this may be true, but you can also do your priority task faster/better than anyone else – and it’s more important).
- Consider using an Urgent/Important Matrix. This is a tool credited both to President Dwight Eisenhower and Steven Covey. If you’re a visual person, and it helps you to graph things out, this may be useful.
- Plan ahead to avoid the urgent. A lot of urgent things happen because we leave important things to the last minute. Anyone who’s ever pulled an ‘all-nighter’ knows this. Some things, of course, cannot be foreseen. But a lot can, and should, be anticipated.
- Before favoring an urgent task over an important one, ask yourself key questions:
- Must this be done NOW?
- If not, when can I s
chedule to get it done so that it becomes part of my plan and an important ‘to-do’?
- If so, do I need to be the one to do this? To whom can I delegate?
- What do I have to put on my ‘to-do’ list for the future so this doesn’t happen again?
Allow the important to erupt. Give your important tasks the time and space they deserve. Don’t hold them back by spending all your time responding to interruptions. Interrupting fires, even when you fight them, burn down forests. It’s a never-ending cycle; a battle with no productive end. Erupting volcanoes build mountains. What’s your mountain? Own it. Build it. Don’t get distracted by the fires.