From Firefighting to Great Performance

Some years ago I arranged for my client, the maintenance unit from a leading Japanese airline, to meet with a leading European airline. After touring the European facility and exchanging insights we sat down to a very nice lunch. I sat next to our European host and we had a lively discussion. Our host commented that his team was really skilled at firefighting. Firefighting got everyone’s adrenaline moving and they really excelled at saving the day; never mind that most of these fires were self-inflicted.

His comments garnered chuckles because they held a stinging truth. There is something about the urgency and challenge of firefighting that enables us to focus and feel a great sense of accomplishment. But too often, throughout the hundreds of organizations I’ve worked with,  firefighting is self-inflicted. It’s much like eighth-grade soccer players piling on the ball.

The question for all of us is how do we progress from piling on our urgent problems like the eighth graders to teaming at the collegiate level, to teaming like World Cup Soccer Champion. At the World Cup level players are “in the zone” when they anticipate where the ball is headed and execute emergent plays with perfect coordination.

Teaming at the World Cup level in business is much like a great Jazz performance.   Each musician must be a great soloist in their own right and be able to integrate their genus in real time with the other performers in group flow.  To achieve this level of play in business, just like in sports or music, we need to work on ourselves first. We need to train our focus, awareness, insight, and dynamic relationship skills. But how often in business are we looking for the quick fix?

In Eleven Rings a book by acclaimed basketball coach Phil Jackson he demonstrates what it takes to move a team to the highest levels of group performance. It requires effective framing, enrollment, coaching, and most of all disciplined effort on a path of individual and group mastery. A disciplined path to mastery is not a quick fix but it is the only way that leaders and employees of business will achieve and maintain Great Performance in today’s complex and volatile world.

Taking Action: To get started you need to identify if, like most organizations, you have a firefighting habit. If so, you need to establish a new habit of anticipation and prevention. To do this you should establish a series of prevention milestones that focus attention and trigger preventative actions that are as urgent and fulfilling as firefighting.

Posted by David Sherman

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