The heat of technological innovation sometimes starts out-of-control wildfires of politics, process collapses or budget challenges that rage through your IT shop. If you’re lucky, you’ve got some folks who are good in a crisis and can be rapidly shifted from their regular duties to handle the situation. However, burnt-out leadership, scorched morale and seared delivery reputations are more common results. If you’re particularly unlucky, the next fire will burn through before you and your organization have a chance to recover from the previous one, killing the climate for any innovation at all.

Just like you probably don’t pay firemen to hang around your house all day, you probably don’t have staff dedicated to responding to these kinds of situations. In a really large organization, you might be able to keep such folks busy. In smaller or less contentious organizations, where there aren’t fires burning all the time, those folks that stink of smoke and char make the regular employees nervous. And those instincts and reflexes that make for good organizational firefighters also make for setting off sirens and scrambling around at the slightest rise in temperature.

In the spirit of full disclosure, my consulting practice is devoted to getting the innovative bang without the corresponding meltdown, even if things already seem a little out of control. It’s not true that my favorite cologne is Eau d’ Charcoal, nor do I have perpetually singed eyebrows. That said, there are some tactics you can use to make visits from me and my kind either less frequent or more effective in those situations where it can’t be avoided.

Barbecue vs. forest fire
Most organizations have people who are good problem solvers and good in a crisis. It’s a skill that’s difficult to test for, but think back to the last last-minute budget reduction or project snafu. Some people responded more easily and more productively than others. You probably don’t want to make that a formal part of their job for the reasons mentioned above, but sprinkling those kinds of people over high-risk projects will help manage the unexpected and reduce the severity of problems when they do arise. Forest fires don’t start as acre-gobbling monsters. Spotting a problem and fixing it when it’s small works better than waiting for rescue in most cases.

Buying fire trucks vs. fighting fires
Many organizations confuse planning with reality. They invest great effort in assessment and analysis as they’re developing their plans. As soon as implementation begins, however, those other efforts stop. It is as if planning is some kind of magic chemical sprayed on the present that prevents changes in the future. If you won’t fight fires as they pop up in front of you, it really doesn’t matter how many fire trucks you’ve bought. On-going assessment of planning assumptions and results is a vital control for organizations trying innovative new things.

Watch your marshmallows
We’ve all watched our marshmallows turn a heavy golden brown and, as if hypnotized by the flames, held them on the stick just a little longer till they burst into drippy flames. Marshmallows don’t go from pure white to flaming black in one step and neither do most problems. You have people you know are chronic complainers. They’re not your marshmallows. The people who don’t speak up much but do great work, the quirky ones you may not always like but you always listen to – those are your marshmallows. Watch them for signs of char. The best fire is the one you never have to fight.

A little heat in an organization is a good thing, but sometimes stoking the fires of innovation will go astray. Acting surprised is not a good first line of defense. Anything that helps you anticipate change and notice deviations from your expectations will help. The tactics outlined above will position you and your organization for the inevitable surprises. And if things get really bad, you can call in the outsiders. Let them take the heat and then go home, so you don’t have those scary apparitions with smudged faces and the vague odor of smoke wondering your halls once the situation’s back under control.

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Byron Glick is a principal at Prairie Star Consulting, LLC, a planning and
program development consulting firm in Madison, Wisconsin. He can be
contacted via the e-mail at byron.glick@prairiestarconsulting.com or via telephone at
608/345-3958.

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The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, & do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.