There’s a very real phenomenon that occurs in the firefighter community called firefighter arson. There is a very small percentage of firefighters that will start a fire in order to put it out. For example, in 2006 there was a volunteer firefighter named Robert Eric Eason that was charged with setting at least a dozen wildfires in Northern California. The jury found him guilty and he was sentenced to 40 years in prison. Who knows why these people would do such a thing. It may be to elicit the feelings of excitement that come from putting out a fire to feeling like a hero because they were the one that called the fire into the station. Regardless, it’s a crime that is hard to understand.
Not as serious, but just as confounding, is the fact that there are arsonist/firefighters that we work with every day in our corporate project management lives. You know the type of person. This is someone that will put something off to the last minute, deliberately ignore something that needs to get done, even send people down the wrong path intentionally. Why? Because this gives them the opportunity to sweep in and save the day when things really get off track! It’s frustrating to watch and something you quickly lose patience with as you see it unfold time and again before your eyes. Which begs the question, are there any project management systems that can account for an arsonist / firefighter within the project team?
Why Project Team Members Risk the Success of a Project
Let’s address the question of why somebody would do this before we dive into the project management systems that could be used to manage such a person. The following are a few of the reasons why people will intentionally set a fire in the workplace and then come in and put it out later:
- They feel like a hero – I’ve worked with a number of people that will deliberately put things off until the last minute and create havoc and chaos around them. People are waiting on deliverables that they are expected to complete and schedules are quickly running out of time. Clients are getting nervous that they have not seen any tangible progress made on their project.
Yet, the arsonist/firefighter deliberately chooses to work on other less pressing matters. Unfortunately, these are many times people in senior level positions that succumb to this type of behavior. Why? Because they know that “crunch time” is soon to come. It may be the last month, week, day, or hours before the project is due and they then step in and “take care of everything”.
This is where the all-nighters and weekend work come into play. You come in the next morning and the firefighter/arsonist will be sitting there with a tired look on their long face. “Yeah, I had to stay here all night to get this done, but, it did get done”, they remark stoically. Meanwhile you are pulling your hair out as a project manager because they have thoughtlessly inconvenienced the rest of the team and their project management systems and put the entire project at risk.
- They feel needed – Another reason why some people will become an arsonist/firefighter is that it makes them feel needed. When things run smoothly people may not feel quite as needed as when things are careening out of control. Project management systems may be in place that allows a project to move seamlessly from beginning to end without a lot of chaos. Everyone does their part and then moves on to the next task at hand. The arsonist/firefighter has a greater need for recognition than most and will create opportunities that feed this desire to feel needed.
- They thrive on chaos – Yes, there are people that actually enjoy chaos. It goes against every fiber that a project manager has in their being, but some people do enjoy it when things are not going as planned. They like the feelings that are created from conflict, drama, misunderstanding, and things not going as planned. It keeps their mind occupied and firing on all cylinders. They have to have a lot of noise and commotion around them at all times to heighten their performance levels. These are the corporate adrenaline junkies that enjoy such extreme sports as “not telling the whole story”, “over promise and under-deliver” and “I never said that” to name just a few. They like the fires that they set to be as large and hot as possible.
Project Management Systems to Mitigate the Risk of the Arsonist/Firefighter?
There are a number of project management systems you can put in place as a project manager that will allow you to deal with the challenge of people that put the project at risk. For example:
- Preemptive Project Management – Preemptive project management systems are anything you put in place that will prevent this behavior from occurring. You only need to be burned once by the arsonist behavior to realize that it’s not a good experience for you, the team and the client. If you know you are dealing with this type of person then make sure you anticipate what they are up to and head them off at the pass. For example, they may be procrastinating on getting a certain deliverable complete. You can move the deadline up in order to move it through the process faster and let them know that it has to be done at this particular time. They can then go through their motions of starting a fire, but you still have your deliverable (and team) intact without too much surrounding drama.
- Ask Questions – Trust, but verify what they are saying. You may hear from this person that they are 98% of the way done on whatever they are working on. The problem is that they have been 98% done for the last 50% of the project! You need to put project management systems in place that will allow you to objectively drill into the details and verify for yourself the state of each deliverable. You have been burned too many times before by this person to allow something to go unverified until the last minute when you find out there’s a roaring fire blazing.
- Rely on Objective Reports – A third project management system you can put in place to prevent the arsonist/firefighter from striking are objective reports. These reports should be designed to identify key deliverables and who is responsible for making these deliverables happen. Reviewing these reports in an objective manner each week at your status meetings will uncover whether this person is really on track or if they are steadily falling behind with the caveat that they have things under control. This objective way of managing someone that falls into the category of arsonist/firefighter is a great way to make sure they are on track as well as provide them with an understanding of how many other people are depending upon them to meet their date.
It’s really hard to believe that there are some firefighters that will set a fire just for the thrill and excitement of putting it out. It’s equally as hard to believe that there are people in our business and professional lives that will do the same thing in a company environment. You can quickly identify these people if they are on your team. Use the three suggestions above in helping to manage them and remember…where there’s smoke there’s fire.
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