Business owners often claim they’re too busy putting out fires to get any real work done. I know exactly what they mean…
You start the day with great intentions – and a list of highly strategic business-building activities to work through. But then something happens. Perhaps a client phones in with a problem. Or a staff member is away. Maybe there’s an issue with someone in your team that you need to sort out. Or you realise your bank account is low and payroll is due on Thursday. It could be that another client has a special request that you haven’t handled before. Or perhaps someone alerts you to a bad review that someone’s written about your business.
So many fires to put out and good luck getting anything else done!
This was the story of my life for many years. But the really crazy thing was that every time it happened, I’d think “this latest crisis” was just a one-off event. An anomaly that wouldn’t happen again. But of course, these fire just kept coming.
So how do you rise above day-to-day crisis management so that you can actually get some real work done? How do you move from working in your business, to working on your business?
Decide Which Fires are Important
It might seem counterintuitive, but not all fires are worth worrying about.
As a business owner, you simply can’t focus on fixing everything at once. You’ve probably already realised that if you try to do this, you’ll end up running around like a crazy person and not doing anything very well.
Like most things in life, you usually have more choice in the matter than you might first think. Depending on your vision for your business, the current stage of your business, and it’s particular bottlenecks, you need to decide what’s important and what you can let slide.
Recently I heard Reid Hoffman tell the story of the early days at Paypal when they were busy building the product. At one stage, they had 3 customer support people and suddenly the support enquiries started escalating. Before long, they were falling behind by thousands of support tickets a week! Customer tracked down then corporate phone numbers so they stopped answering their business phones to avoid speaking to customers that they didn’t have the capacity to help. They even had angry customers tracking them down and turning up at their offices!
Customer service was a huge fire but they chose not to fight it at that time. It’s not that Reid and the team didn’t think customers were important. Instead, they decided that the most important thing was to fix and refine the product. That was their sole focus at the time and probably a big part in leading them to be as successful as they’ve been. You can listen to his podcast episode titled “Let Fires Burn” here – but eventually they turned their attention to solving the customer service problem and opened up a customer service centre with hundreds of staff.
When a business is growing, you just can’t be great at everything. The earlier you recognise this and decide what you want to focus your attention on, the sooner you’ll start making real progress.
You’ll Always Be Putting Out Fires
Of course, putting the right systems in place will help you reduce the extent and severity of the problems that keep popping up in your business. But unfortunately, no matter how good your processes are, these crisis will never disappear entirely.
Expect the fires to keep coming!
Instead of hoping each day will be crisis-free, expect to have some fires to deal with and give yourself some time to put them out. In other words, plan when you’re going to put out whatever fires are burning that day.
This might look like setting aside 2 hours when you first get to the office to deal with urgent matters. Or, it might look like scheduling each afternoon to go out and see clients.
Whichever way you go, you need to figure out a system which allows you to get a few small, but important tasks done each day. These are what will get your business to the next level.
You Can Never Eliminate Problems, You Just Graduate to Better Problems
As your business grows and changes, your fires will changes in nature. You may not have to deal with customer emergencies – you’ll have staff that do that. Instead, you may have difficult problems with senior staff, negotiations over office leases, regulatory issues, or other higher order problems.
The day I realised that you can never get rid of your problems, I was able to get some better perspective. I now think of myself as lucky to have the types of problems I have and putting out fires becomes less of a burden.