What scatterbrained project managers can learn from Firefighters?


What’s your emergency?

The first kind of emergency is what we all have, every day. A stressful day at work. A missed appointment with your doctor. Or a kid’s neighbor that broke your window. Then there is this second kind of emergency. Then there’s the kind that you don’t want to face. The kind that comes without a warning. A car crash, a heart attack, a break-in or a massive fire in your home. That’s an emergency you can’t handle alone, you have to call a firefighter.

Firefighters are just a call away and they are trained to handle any dangerous situation with astonishing accuracy. While their jobs involve a lot of stress, they know which necessary steps are required to rescue people out of their homes without anyone getting hurt.

Like the crises firefighters face on their job every day, project managers are faced with a similar level of emergency every day. Well, okay, not with the same intensity, but enough to disrupt the progress and ruin your project.

In a routine scenario, every firefighter subconsciously follows the SLICERS approach while they’re on the field rescuing valuable lives. Here is what the acronym means:

Size up all the scenes

Locate the origin of the fire

Identify and devise a plan

Cool down the fire from a safe place

Extinguish the fire completely

Rescue the maximum number of people

How can SLICERS protocol help project managers?

While the acronym is specifically designed for firefighters, the principles remain the same for project managers and employees who want to handle a difficult situation at work. When your brain is experiencing the pain and anxiety you need to follow the SLICERS protocol to take the necessary steps to get matters in disequilibrium back in control.

Here is how it works. First, the firefighter size up the problem. Which means they take a full view of the building, review the conditions and plan out a quick strategy. As a project manager, you also need to look at the full picture of the project. Second, firefighters locate the super-hot areas like the most dangerous areas. For a project manager, it is necessary to figure out the most critical areas of the project and figure out ways to eliminate any more delays.

As the saying goes, ‘A problem well-stated is half solved.’ Once the problem is identified, it becomes rather easy to devise a proper critical activity path to solve the problem.

The takeaway from SLICERS methodology

The biggest takeaway from the SLICERS protocol is that no matter where the fire is igniting, instead of fighting the fire directly, it is best to come up with a plan of action and go with it. Often when we face a problem at work that requires prompt decision making our mind freezes. At that moment, we need something to cling on, something to slap us out of the seizure and get us moving in the right direction.

Firefighters use color labels to identify the critical state of people

When firefighters start a rescue operation they assign different colors to mark the severity of injury of people are affected by the fire and who needs to be rescued immediately. The diagram explains the Decision Matrix which firefighters use to take care of the conditions at hand:

Often the most critical state is 1 or 2, where the firefighter needs to decide without delaying anything. When the firefighters arrive at a scene it is all about urgent and important, there is no grey area to filter between critical and non-critical cases.

For firefighters, it is always about life or death scenarios. Either you’re going to save or lose someone. Project managers have the same urgency. Often professional task management tools use the power of color labels to mark the urgency of a project.

For instance, while handling a project a project manager might be required to deliver a website tomorrow. This is urgent. This site might be needing minor tweaks and adjustments. They are important but not urgent.

Keep one thing in mind, ignoring these non-urgent important tasks for a long time can convert them into urgent tasks. So, make sure you always have a plan to tackle them on time as well.

Inhale, Listen, & trust your muscle memory

There is no time for a firefighter to think a lot when the emergency alarm goes off. The expert level firefighters slow down their breath, inhale, and listen to their muscle memory. One advantage of advanced firefighters is that with the passage of time they establish smart instincts which help them to calm down and make the right decision.

The human brain has this tendency to listen to little bit of information and fill in the blanks. But as a firefighter listening to the whole call is the key. You have to pay attention to the full information before you react to anything.

You need to listen to even to the minor sounds which are an indication of something big. With experience, you establish a muscle memory which can guide you with the sounds.

With project managers, it is all about getting yourself in the gear. You cannot afford to miss the signals which you get from inside and on those signals you can act upon the deadline. Project managers call it instincts.

Be patient & appreciate the small wins

You think that your life is hard or people are bothering you too much?

Your life problems are nothing as compared to the problems that a firefighter face in a single day. There are automatic fire alarms which when set off raise an alarm for firefighters to respond; despite the nature of the issue, firefighters have to respond, and every time they need to be prepared for the worst of conditions. It is a high-stress job that can only lead to frustration.

In management, Peter Ducker talks about management by objectives (MBO) in which he suggests that the best approach to solve problems is to take handle them with patience. You need to figure out the overall objective of the project and in the second phase divide the objective among the employees.

Once the objective is divided it gets easier to handle the project & complete the project on-time.

Winding it up

I am not a firefighter. But trust me, I have seen firefighters at the job. The stress, the accuracy, the instincts play a major role in their lives. Same goes for project managers. If you’re running a firm, you need to think like a firefighter. You need to act, think, and work like a firefighter.