Ho-Hum, Another Fire Drill

September 25, 2008


Am I the only denizen of Corporate America who finds the term ‘fire drill’ demotivating?

I don’t think it’s the term. I think it’s the way that it’s misused to describe an urgent activity that takes priority without warning.

A real fire drill is an important thing. It may not feel like it when it interrupts your workday, but it is. Ask anyone who’s ever managed Facilities and you’ll find it’s a very organized and purposeful affair. Do people respond quickly? Do they assemble at the right place? What’s the total time to get the building empty, and how do we know for sure that it is empty? Everyone participating in a fire drill has a real stake in the outcome: the ability of this group of people to quickly respond to an emergency in a way that keeps everyone safe and accounted for.

That’s not what’s meant in Corporate America when someone swings by and says “sorry, but we’ve got a fire drill today.” It’s rarely purposeful or organized. A senior exec has demanded information and analysis immediately. The exact need is often unclear. (Sometimes the demand could be boiled down to “give me something that will get the Board off my back.”) The only thing that’s clear is that this take priority over everything else.

So underlings scurry to push the urgency they feel to other underlings, who request immediate information from their peers and underlings. If the need wasn’t clearly articulated in the first place, imagine what happens as it turns into a massive game of ‘telephone’.

Let’s take the Egghead Marketing copter up so we can view it from the air. First, look at a real fire drill – organized groups of people moving purposefully in well-defined directions. Now look at a corporate fire drill from the air. It looks nothing like the real fire drill. It looks more like what happens when you drop a baseball on an anthill. Lots of activity, but none of it organized or purposeful.

In four difference Fortune 500 corporations I’ve seen my share of fire drills. It hasn’t been substantially different at any of them. A corporate fire drill typically produces a PowerPoint deck as the output. The length varies, but one thing that stays constant is an excessive ratio of ‘backup’ slide as a percentage of the total deck. I commonly see ‘fire drill’ decks where 90% of the slides are in backup. Don’t tell me ‘there was value in doing all those slides because that information was summarized in the main deck.’ I know the value of my time and the time of my peers and subordinates, and I know the cost of diverting that time from revenue-generating work. For every ten units of work expended, one unit of value was created.

It’s plain that I think ‘fire drill’ is the wrong metaphor. But I guess you can’t swing by someone’s cube and say ‘sorry, but someone dropped a baseball on the corporate anthill and I need you to scurry around frantically for a while.’

Is there a metaphor that would reflect the situation more honestly? Or, even better, one that would cause us to act more purposefully?

Photo by Sean Glenn


2 Responses to “Ho-Hum, Another Fire Drill”

  1. Vicki Says:

    Oftentimes, those of us in the ant hill are at least honest abut the reason for the scurry.

    Next time something like this happens at Work, I’ll have to remember the “baseball” metaphor!

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