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Hello! This is Mark McKenna, creator of Put Out the Fires. In the last video I shared with you the story about Clyde's epic quest to become a hero. Now I want to discuss some of the principles from this story that will hopefully be helpful to you in your work.
First off, let's quickly review the story. A brave man named Clyde wants to be a hero, so he leaves his home in search of ways to be useful to the world. As he progresses on his quest, he finds that there are fires ravaging the rooftops of the surrounding towns. He wants to help out, so he runs to the nearby creek, scoops up water in his bucket, and throws water on the fires until the flames are extinguished. After each heroic rescue, the townspeople are grateful, and they congratulate him and encourage him on his quest. After doing this several times, it dawns on Clyde that this must be his heroic purpose: to put out fires. When he comes to the next town, however, he finds that he was too late: the fire had burned down the town to nothing more than ashes. That's when a woman comes up to him and reveals what was causing the fires all along: a dragon! In horror, Clyde realizes that while he had been putting out fires, a dragon had continued on ahead of him, continually burning up more and more towns. While this is great job security for Clyde, he realizes that if he wants to put out the fires for good and do something truly heroic, he has to get rid of the dragon. He sets off at once to fix his error, once firefighter, now dragon slayer.
How does this story apply to the work you do?
Well, we all have experienced those days at work when it feels like all we did was "put out fires all day.”
Corporate fires are the unscheduled interruptions that distract us from our priorities and cause us to be reactive instead of proactive. Often a fire is characterized by its tendency to cause “bad things” to happen if we don’t do something about it.
Clyde knew that if he wasn't urgent about responding to the fires, the towns would be destroyed.
However, consider this: what would have happened if Clyde continued to fight fires instead of slaying the dragon?
He would have found burning buildings in each subsequent town he arrived at. There would have potentially been a never-ending supply of work for him to get done.
For some people, this is comforting. Like I mentioned before, Clyde might have felt like he had great job security when he realized so many towns were in need of his fire-fighting abilities. Besides that, he was good at his job, and people thanked him for it.
Which brings us to the question of WHY fire-fighting at work is such a prevalent problem.
One of the reasons you are fighting so many fires at work is because YOU LIKE IT.
Have you ever experienced an adrenaline rush when you expertly fixed a crisis at work? Dealing with urgent things has a tendency to make us feel good. We all want to feel heroic.
We also all want to do work that we are successful at. We see solutions to problems according to the skill set we have and the knowledge we possess. To a hammer, everything is a nail. Have you ever been in a business meeting where you are dealing with a big issue, and the finance guy in the room sees it as a financial issue, the HR lady sees it from an HR lens, and the tech person sees it as a software problem? Clyde is an expert at fighting fires, and the better he becomes at fighting fires, the less likely he may be to see the dragon.
Another reason fighting fires at work is so common is because organizations tend to reward employees who fix big problems.
Think about it: what if at the beginning of the story, when Clyde found his first town on fire, he had looked up in the sky and seen a dragon— and he came to the huge realization that if he got rid of the dragon, he would sacrifice a few towns to begin with, but would save countless more. However.. If he slew the dragon right from the start instead of fighting the fires, the countless towns that he saved would never know the difference. He wouldn’t have been congratulated as a hero in those towns. And, in the towns that burned down because Clyde wasn’t there to save them, the townspeople might have been angry if they knew that he could have helped. At the very least, they would have been devastated. They would have lost their homes and places of business, and Clyde wouldn’t haven’t been their hero. It turns out there is more glory in fire-fighting than in dragon-slaying.
Don’t believe me? An employee who troubleshoots a complicated tech problem is likely to get more recognition than an employee who sets it up correctly right from the start, preventing the problem from occurring in the first place. An employee who resolves a huge customer complaint might get a bonus, while no one would ever be the wiser with an employee who anticipates the customer concern and resolves it before it even becomes an issue.
So, another reason why you are fighting fires at work is because your work environment might be inadvertently incentivizing you to put out fires instead of slay dragons.
The third reason fire-fighting happens so much is because of a lack of purpose. When employees don’t know what their most important work is (or don’t CARE to know), they will respond to whatever inkling of busy-ness seems easiest to them in the moment.
All Clyde knew when he left his home, was that he was bored and he wanted to prove he was “worthy of praise.” When the opportunity presented itself, his response was obvious: fight the fire, feel good for having helped out, do what is easiest.
Sometimes organizations do a horrible job of succinctly articulating what their mission is. Without a clear vision, employees are unable to prioritize in the moment what activities are most important. Clyde didn’t even have a solid understanding about what his real job should have been. He thought his job was to fight fires. No— his real job was to put out the fires. If he would have grasped that, he would have been able to step back from the urgency of the moment, maybe zoom out to see the big picture, and know what was most important. He would have known that if his purpose is to put out fires for good, then slaying dragons is more important than fighting fires.
A very good sign that a company has a clear, meaningful purpose is when employees at all levels of the organization can express exactly what the company’s purpose is. This gives them the ultimate litmus test for deciding how to approach their work and empowering them to slay dragons instead of fighting fires.
Not only do individual employees need to clearly understand what the organizational mission is, they also have to have a clear, vibrant purpose for their own work. They need to know how the work they do directly adds value to and aligns with the mission of the company. And they also need to know how it aligns with their personal mission.
Consider this: if you didn’t have to fight fires all day, what would you do with all your extra time? If only 60% of your role were tightly defined, in terms of what results you should be achieving and what work activities you should be performing, what projects would you vigorously pursue with the remaining 40% of your time at work?
What you value and what you find purpose in determines how you will act.
Do you value being a hero, positioning yourself for future opportunities, and moving up a slippery-sloped corporate ladder, or do you value solving big problems and doing great work?
Are you a fire-fighter, or are you a dragon slayer?
Deciding which one makes all the difference.
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