Who hasn't dreamed of being a firefighter? Most of us wouldn't dare try it in real life. But, if there's a burning building nearby, it can be exhilarating to witness brave men and women saving lives and homes.
Who hasn't dreamed of being a building code inspector?
You, most likely. But, when you're the one who owns the building you had better hope the latter does her job properly so there is less chance of you ever needing the former.
It's the same in the workplace. The employee who comes in late at night to finalize a project before its deadline might save his team's bacon. But, had the project been planned better from the start everyone could have gotten to bed on time. The team would also have had the opportunity to double and triple check their numbers, to clean up the presentation and to make sure everyone's input was given its proper hearing.
In my years as a "people officer" advising companies that are looking to improve their corporate culture, I've seen this situation play itself out over and over. The members of the team work themselves to exhaustion but progress always seems to be lagging. They are constantly busy but seem to be standing still.
I call this the pinball syndrome. You play and you concentrate and you become better at predicting where the ball will go and more deft with the flippers -- but ultimately you don't win because there is no way to win. You just keep the ball in play until you lose. It's fun -- the adrenalin is a big help -- but in the end nothing was accomplished.
In the office, a project due in two weeks might require two weeks of focus, but something always seems to get in the way: The phone rings, someone pops their head into your office, you're needed in a meeting, you bat back the pinball and get a tiny rush from the lights and bells that go off.
Or, when things get really nuts you may feel like the pinball itself.
All of those events bouncing around are urgent, but many of them fall outside the realm of what is actually important. In fact, much of it can be called busy work.
A big boost to productivity comes from recognizing the distinction between what's important and what's merely urgent.
It is the people who don't get caught up in the pinball routine who tend to be the happiest and are the most effective. In cultures such as this, workers and managers get sucked in by the activity when they should be focused on the outcome.
As a leader, one effective way of avoiding this is to encourage employees to sit down at the beginning of the week, map out the important things and create a schedule that sets aside certain hours of each day dedicated solely to the completion of what is important. Unless there is a huge emergency, holding that time sacred -- not letting the rush of the day interfere -- ensures that the staffers remain focused on their goals.
An organization's leadership should be constantly examining their own priorities as well as the office culture. Firefighting is far more exciting than to watch the guy who installs the smoke detectors and fire extinguishers. Certainly, both roles are important, but it's the ounce of preparation that leads to real results.
The problem leaders face is that most companies reward the firefighters. Their work and results are easiest to see, after all. Meanwhile the back-office manager who gets her budget finalized and submitted three months early very often goes unnoticed.
We appreciate the people who save the day, but we have to stop, slow down, and see if they aren't the ones who caused the emergency in the first place.
Related Video: How to Prioritize Your Priorities