Getting Past Fire Drills to Grow your Company

by Melanie, on 14 Jan 2020

It is an inherent characteristic of working at any startup or fast growing company that there are never enough hands to get all of the work done. Plus, many of the looming activities and decisions are things the company hasn't dealt with before, so there's no process manual to refer to for guidance. On top of that, depending on how much experience the team as a whole has, it's possible that nobody has encountered anything similar.

We see many leaders struggling to move beyond allowing whichever new fire has popped up to dictate everyday priorities and human resource allocations.

I get it - it can be scary to sit back, knowing that some new "crisis" has arisen, put it to the side, and focus on strategic parts of your business - rather than dealing it immediately and urgently. Who has time to build a customer journey map when five tweets and two emails need to go out today? (and two of your most high-profile clients are threatening to take their business elsewhere, and you just found out that your VP of Technology, who is a rock star, has a job offer from a glam company and you're not sure that you can match the salary...)

Business Crisis

Let me be blunt about this: if you can't (a) get clear on your priorities and (b) follow through on your commitment to those priorities, you will seriously threaten your company's survival.

Do not let ANYTHING derail you from your priorities.

All right, maybe ANYTHING is a bit dramatic. We all have things going on that need handling, families that deserve our attention, and health needs that ought not to be forgotten.

There are also those fires that do represent an immediate threat to your company, but I challenge you to be disciplined enough to identify - and be intentionally selective about - which catastrophes really fall into that bucket. Do not let all of them derail you.

To me, the key difference is knowing whether there's actually a fire - or if you're experiencing a fire drill.

Here are some ideas on how to move past everyday fire drills and stop them dictating your day.

Set priorities and goals. And, know why they are important.

You can read 1000s of online guides about goal setting. You can pick a few at random or based on semi-information, or you can think through what really matters to your company.

What matters right now and for the next year? Do you know why they are important? How will they contribute to your top-line (or bottom-line)? You should be able to convince your grandmother why a particular goal matters to your company.

Pro tip: Setting more than 5-10 goals means that you are more likely to fail at meeting those goals, so limit yourself and prioritize what really matters at this stage. It will make all of the other suggestions here easier to implement!

Build time into your weeks, months, quarters, and years that is focused on strategy development and planning.

I recommend putting strategy planning meetings on the calendar for a whole year, before the year even starts.

Even if you are still a solopreneur, you owe yourself that thinking time and the head space for annual and quarterly planning.

However, don't just set a strategy and then dust it off every 13 weeks. Look at it regularly - at least weekly - so that you are truly engaged with it, and have it memorized. This will help you stay focused on the end-game that you truly desire, making appropriate, strategically-sound decisions along the way.

Plan out your weeks and days, INCLUDING buffer time FOR handlING fires.

One of the things that has radically improved my day-to-day productivity is sitting down to plan out, even loosely, my weeks and days.

I take my annual goals and break them into quarterly goals. Based on those goals, I set monthly, weekly, and daily targets. At the daily and weekly level, some are still goals while many are specific activities I need to complete.

I build in time for checking and responding to emails, for reading, and for exercise. However, I also try to leave about two hours each day unscheduled, which means I can get the essential stuff finished while also having some buffer time for the unexpected.


This should really be "delegate and let go." Unless you're a solopreneur, you have other options for solving problems and putting out fires. Trust your team to handle at least some of them, and let them handle them through to completion.

If you can't find anyone to trust, it's time to question whether you have the wrong people on your team or whether it's you that needs to practice delegating instead of micromanaging!

Team Handling Fires

Keep things in perspective.

This is the discipline of telling fire from fire drill. When I shift into survival mode, I know that I can't do effective strategic or creative work. I'm not looking at all the available possibilities before making decisions. Emergency decisions have to be made and executed on quickly, without much time for thinking things through or preparing for unintended consequences.

Take a deep breath, list out the critical issues that are competing for your time, and figure out which, if any, are truly life-threatening (to you or your business). 

Frequently, the answer will be none.  In that case, reset the fire alarm and follow normal prioritization and execution tactics to work down the list.  I recommend starting with whichever issue, once solved, will make other issues on the list less urgent or easier to tackle.

If any of the issues genuinely are life-threatening - using that term to mean anything seriously detrimental to your personal well-being or to the viability of your business - then pay heed to the alarm and act decisively.  Everything else can wait.  Focus on resolving the critical threat and then come back to the less-severe issues with a clear head.

Next Steps

  • Review your company's purpose, mission, and vision to keep your sights set on the right priorities.
  • Make sure you have an annual strategy and goals that you've broken down into quarterly targets.
  • Schedule your quarterly meetings for the year.
  • Schedule next year's annual planning meeting for late this year.
  • Plan your weeks and days by allotting time for specific activities while leaving 1.5 - 2 hours buffer time for the unexpected.
  • Identify to whom you can delegate different types of crisis. Or, if you are a team of one, think about what tasks you'd prefer to delegate and the kind of person you will hire once you're ready.
  • Create a personal framework to help you separate fires from fire drills.
  • Check out our guide to Growing & Scaling your company.

Photo Credits

Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash
Photo by 
henry perks on Unsplash