Putting out fires: Managers who “want it now” or “want it yesterday” are managing from a deficit

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Have you ever had a manager who has a last minute request, “I need this now!”  The more extreme version of this is, “I need this yesterday.”  Usually, this is a new last-minute request, and this can be very disruptive and annoying to employees, and a sure sign that the manager is “managing from a deficit.”

Now, I’m not talking about jobs where there is a last-minute nature to the job.  A firefighter’s job, is, by definition, a “last-minute” kind of job.  The firefighter’s boss will no doubt say, “We need to do this right away!”  But there is a lot of preparation that firefighters engage in – with the aid and coordination of their bosses — that goes into meeting the demands of that “last minute” request known as a fire.

I’m talking about a boss who interrupts your job to request something new, and it is needed soon.  And this request is made with urgency, perhaps with some yelling involved.  These are requests that are metaphoric fires, not actual fires.

So if you are someone on a team that seems to have a lot of “fires”, then read on.

Let’s take a look at some of the sources of these last minute requests (a.k.a., fires):

1.     Is the request primarily to assure the manager looks better to his manager?

A common source of this kind of last minute request is to provide assistance to the manager in helping him report up to his manager what is going on, most likely the request of the manager above her.  So, ironically, the request keeps rolling downhill.  If you have an organization with more than three levels, you have at least three “sources” for needs for updates.  If the upper management team does this consistently, such last-minute requests can start to appear to be the norm.  For example, let’s say that the upper management decides to schedule an “all team meeting” and wants all of managers in the group need to present to the team.  And it’s going to happen next week.  Last minute request spawned!

So the team needs to stop what they are doing and instead create a report on what they are doing.   When this happens, the manager is asking the team to take the “hit” and not the manager.  The manager should have the option to say to his manager, “This would disrupt my team in achieving its goals, which have already been prioritized” and provide the level of reporting already agreed upon.  The request can be made to add it to future reports, as part of the core team deliverables.  The manager can choose to make an exception and start the “metaphorical” fire, but should also note this as an opportunity to renegotiate what reporting –and the timing of it– the upper management needs. 

2.     Is the request something that has been needed in the past, and keeps coming back?

Sometimes the same “last-minute” request can be the same request, but the manager neglects to identify this pattern.  The last minute request comes in again and again, and the same “fires” seem to keep happening.  This seems to happen with budgeting a lot.  When budget reporting is needed or the budgeting process is kicked off, there is a flurry of activity that ought to seem predictable.   Another source is the status update on a program or project.  For some reason, managers (who are managing from a deficit) are not willing to use the existing status delivery vehicles (and their existing state), and frequently request new, custom status updates.

To help manage this, the manager who is not managing from a deficit should track the “fires” that they’ve needed to resolve, what the output was created, and the process (however ad hoc) that was used to resolve it.  Then the manager should schedule in the work as something that is integral to the team’s operations so that it is more streamlined and of higher quality.  If it not integral to the team’s operations, then the manager needs to negotiate in advance that they will not be performing this request.

3.     Is the request based on someone else on the team not delivering?

If you’re on a team where the manager shifts the work on to you because someone else couldn’t get it done, this could be a sign that the manager does not know how to assess the capability or strengths of the team or is not able to performance manage the people on the team.  It is often easier for a manager to simply shift the responsibility on those who can get it done, and as a result the manager does not get exposed immediately to her boss (see point 1), since the person on the team who can get it done does get it done, at the sacrifice of longer term deliverables.  The manager will probably lose that employee over time, especially if that employee who does the “fill-in” work is not recognized for it.

4.     Is the request based on increased demand for what the team already produces?

This is, most likely, a “good” kind of last minute request.  Someone likes what your team does at its core, and there is more demand for it.  If this is the first time this happens, then you’re likely to have the team scramble, but at least it is something they are already doing.  However, it should be treated as a sign that this could happen again, and the manager needs to build in increased capacity planning and be prepared to confront not meeting demand, lest she burn out the team or decrease the quality of the output.

5.     Is the request based on a change in policy?

In this scenario, the manager learns of a new policy imposed by some outside entity (regulation, internal HR process, whatever), and puts it into place immediately.  This disrupts the team in doing its planned-for work.  If the manager simply imposes the new policy/process without doing appropriate change management, it will ensure both diminished existing operations and the new policy will not “stick” either, while at the same time putting an undue burden on the team.  The non-deficit manager would instead work at negotiating with the source of the policy implementers (especially if internal) to assure that a change management effort is performed in an orderly fashion that minimizes the disruptions to the existing planned work.

There are other sources of “last-minute” requests, but from a management design perspective, it is important to focus on the “self-imposed” fire drills.  These are usually the “updates” that go up the chain of command.  Good management design finds ways to reward those managers/leaders who minimize these disruptions to the team operations, and who create status reporting that is part of normal operations.

Yet it seems that, frequently, the managers who make many last minute requests for info, who make their teams scramble – and create the most drama — are the ones who are often rewarded.  After all, putting out the metaphorical fire seems heroic, while preventing the fire seems boring and somehow all too easy.

What are the sources of “fires” in your organization?  Do they seem to come from the management and leadership team, or do they come from external sources?

Related Article:

The manager who yells is managing from a deficit

Check your usage of the word “just.” It could mean you’re managing from a deficit

Are you asking a change agent to make a change, and then resisting the change?

What to do when someone on your team resists change (part 1)

What to do when someone on your team resists change (part 2)

Managers: Know your change events and track these

The Performance Management Process: Were You Aware of It?

Overview of the performance management process for managers

A Performance Feedback/Performance Management Flowchart

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About Walter Oelwein
Walter Oelwein, CMC, CPT, helps managers become better at managing. To do this, he founded Business Performance Consulting, LLC .

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