Everything you didn't learn in school that will help you survive the world of work. A place for newbies, for working moms, for seasoned professionals and "free agents" to share strategies, tips and tales from the trenches.

Mar 16, 2010

What lights your fire?

Miss Minchin, Dean of Students

Things heat up at work
All of a sudden my job got exciting again. I have been working on a project that is pretty interesting but with a sketchy uncommitted delivery date later in the year. Suddenly I learn that this rough date has been pulled in one quarter. There has been a mad scramble for status updates, deliverables, and details. Luckily we have a pretty good handle on all of these, and I realized something about myself - I actually enjoy the occasional fire alarm. I went home that day with an extra spring in my step. I was doing something important, something critical to the success of the company again, and it felt good.

This is when I realized that I need balance between knowing exactly what I'm going to be working on for the forseeable future, and tackling unexpected "hot" issues. I do some of my best work under pressure, as I can procrastinate on things that aren't urgent. And this made me think about where some of my colleagues fall on the scale of tolerance for such things (And so I invented a scale for such things - more on that later).

Fire Alarms vs. Fire Drills
In my current company, "Fire Drills" are common due to delayed decisions (or delayed consensus), shifting priorities or reorganizations. "Fire Drills" differ from "Fire Alarms" in that the fire drill is not a true emergency, and we worker bees pick up the slack knowing the we shouldn't have to be burning the candle at both ends as we push to deliver the work. Or worse, we have killed ourselves and made personal sacrifices to meet impossible deadlines, only to have the organization change direction and put that project on the shelf.

The Fire Alarm, on the other hand, is a legitimate emergency, or a worthwhile endeavor for the good of the company. It is the kind of project you feel good about jumping in to help make a success. You don't mind working the extra hours, and enjoy the comraderie of the team as it pulls together to achieve a common goal.
Too many fire drills can cause burnout and frustration while true fire alarms can be motivating but are hard to come by. And when things are too predictable (no fires of any kind), it can be a little boring.

Smokey the Bear vs. the Fire Fighters
This brings us back to the scale I invented (or reinvented as one probably exists in the DSM IV). I have colleagues who cannot tolerate the unexpected at work. They find it extremely disruptive and frustrating to have shifting priorities and assignments that change midstream. These are the "Smokey the Bear" types, who know that emergencies are usually preventable, and that we should at least build in some flexibility to plan for "the unexpected" when we set schedules.

Then there are the "Fire fighters" who just love to put out fires. They can't tolerate predictablity and really love to jump in and save the day. They also dislike planning and preparing which they find just too boring.

I'd say I fall near the middle, but leaning slightly toward the Fire Fighter end of the spectrum. I like to know what's coming, but enjoy being able to rise to the challenge when the unexpected comes my way. And it's even better if I get to save the day once in a while.

I suppose there's always the "Fire Starter" or "Arsonist" type who just enjoys creating a problem: either to watch from the sidelines as we jump in to put out the fire, or to rush in and look like a hero. But I decided that it threw off the simplicity of my scale and we write about them in this post and another post.

Where do you fall on the scale?

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