We are constantly confronting the need for change in our organisations. Change at an institutional level, at a team level all the way down to the actions and behaviours of individuals. The world around us is mutating, and we need to adapt to accommodate that change.

Yet if you ask people why they can’t change, all too often the response will be that they don’t have the time because they are too busy being reactive, they are trapped firefighting often as a result of them being unable to change.

This is a vicious and all too common trap. It’s also, I suspected, a terrible metaphor.

A few weeks ago I got the chance to chat with a former firefighter, Phil Murphy, to explore my hunch. So what is it that firefighters actually do?

First off, the reactive stuff that office workers like to refer to as firefighting Phil regarded as akin to a shudder of Clowns (first class collective noun, that) at the circus, arriving in their comedy fire truck and spraying water over each other and the audience. Dangerous, disorganised chaos.

Where firefighters actually spend their time is in honing their approaches to ensure that they are able to deal with their core work of putting out fires (and the wide range of other safety work they do) in optimal ways.

According to Phil, about half of the working week of the firefighter is spent practicing procedures. Imagine that. Half of your working week spent making sure that the times when you were really needed to perform you could perform to the best of your ability.

Alongside core training, another large chunk of the firefighter’s work is learning from others. Partially that is related to good practice, directly taken from other fields. For example, much of modern firefighting technique is taken from the Navy, mainly because if you’re fighting a fire on a ship then everyone is committed to achieving a good outcome.

But routine activities like fire safety inspections are also an opportunity for the firefighters to learn from others and the environment around them.

Often the main motivations for such routine work is to gain knowledge and understanding of particularly complicated or challenging sites so that if there was an emergency the crews would be forewarned of operational challenges.

What might we learn from all of this?

Whilst it might not be realistic to eliminate all of the reactive activity from our working lives, reframing our priorities to be something more like that of a firefighter might change how we think about what’s important and how we prioritise.


Shifting our mindset might look something like the above. At the moment, our days can be consumed with reactive stuff. “The day job” then becomes what we think we should be doing, and change and improvement becomes a luxury that too often gets squeezed out.

But what if we instead looked at our core purpose as something that was to be minimized in terms of effort? That’s possibly counter-intuitive, but if we devoted the bulk of our time to improving how we did things and going out and learning from others?

Do it as a thought experiment:

  • List down the things that currently make up those three blocks on the left
  • Now think hard about what are the activities that are really your core purpose (and how much time you spend on them). You may well find that they’re not as plentiful as you first thought.
  • Now think about how you could better spend your time improving the way in which you deliver your core purpose. That’s not just about training, but about delegating to others, streamlining working practices, automating things, coaching…
  • Who can you learn from? Who else does work like yours from whom you could gain insight? Inside your organisation, and outside?
  • How often do you go out to learn from your clients about what they do? Who are they? What do they need from you?
  • And finally, what things might you do as a result to be more firefighter? Are they really fires you’re fighting?

I’ll be interviewing Phil for the WB-40 Podcast very soon to explore the fascinating work he’s now doing to help improve safety in high-rise buildings.

This conversation was part of my research for my forthcoming book about innovation and play.


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