Fire Drills: How Not to Get Burned in Virtual Project Management

FIRE! Everybody knows what a fire drill is. You’ve participated in dozens of them in your life, I’ll bet. There’s a pattern. Usually, some joker or malcontent pulls an alarm lever, resulting in a loud siren or bell urgently signaling everyone to vacate the premises until the fire department arrives, checks things out and gives the “all clear”. Then you go back to what you were doing and wonder what all the fuss was about.

Fire drills can happen for lots of reasons. Mostly it is poor planning.

This happens so often that we rarely worry about fire alarms at all. I’ve gotten so immune to false alarms that I’ve even remained in my building during a real fire!

Fire drills in project management work pretty much the same way. Out of nowhere, someone contacts you to get something “critical and time-sensitive” done immediately. Usually on a Friday afternoon.   It can mean working late nights and weekends. It can also mean putting other important tasks on hold for however long it takes to complete the “emergency”.

The thing is, real project management fires, like real building fires, are rare. If someone calls you, in a complete panic because they need something asap, you need to be able to judge for yourself if it’s worth putting your work and personal life on hold to deal with one specific demand.

Why Fire Drills Happen

Fire drills can happen for lots of reasons. Mostly it is poor planning:

  • Many times, people get so caught up in details that they lose the big picture and focus on action items, rather than planning. If they are so buried in work that they can’t anticipate their organization’s needs for more than a few days in advance, then at some point there’s going to be a breakdown. FIRE!
  • Often, managers can be under pressure to make changes quickly to meet new guidelines and standardize processes in the midst of organizational change. These changes can bog down the day-to-day inner workings of a company and as a result schedules break down and then deadlines are missed. FIRE!
  • Some co-workers who are, well, lazy, may try to cover up their lackluster work habits by calling “all hands on deck” to finish their personal work. You do not want to fall into their trap. FIRE!

54866588-1Not every fire drill is the result of human error. Many stem from clients who may be giving you unrealistic timelines. There may be supply chain troubles or IT calamities or perhaps a virus taking out a significant part of your workforce.

But let’s be very clear: fire drills usually happen because people accept them.

Maybe they are afraid of losing their job or someone being angry, or they need to look good to get that big promotion.

The thing about fire drills is, there are always two sides to the equation. One person asks, and the other person accepts. Remember, a fire drill doesn’t start until someone says “yes”.

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Just Say No

Project managers have a responsibility to bring order and calm to disordered organizations.

We need to get used to the idea of saying no — especially as we get used to setting new boundaries while working remotely. As naturally organized people who want to make things happen, this is the opposite of our core nature, so it isn’t the easiest thing to do. We need to train ourselves, then we need to train our clients and be a catalyst for change within the organization. 

But this doesn’t happen overnight, so start easy.

The next time Ms. Manager texts you on a Friday afternoon when you’re heading out the door looking forward to skiing all weekend and asks you to get something urgently done for Monday morning, say you’d love to do this, but you are heading out of town, and you’d be happy to get it done for Tuesday morning.

The time after that, tell them you could do a much better job if you get it done for Wednesday.

Most likely, they’ll say something like “Oh OK, that’s fine, great”. If your boss does go bananas, then consider contacting you HR department or polishing up your CV.

Remember, if you are feeling nervous, think about how long it took them to review your work the last five times this happened. More than likely it was days or even a week after they said they needed it. Remember also, if you’ve been accepting these unreasonable requests for awhile, it is going to take some time to change your behavior and you boss’s behavior. So, take baby steps and ease into it.

The Impact of Fire Drills

Fire drills take everyone off their game. The finished product is rarely great because delivery is rushed and unplanned, often requiring intense cycles of last-minute reworks.  People who say yes to fire drills often burn out and end up leaving for other opportunities, putting even more stress on the organization. Core programs and longer-term deliverables get delayed, and the entire staff may lose confidence in their managers and in their own abilities.

What Can You Do About It?

shutterstock_442923805Project managers have a responsibility to bring order and calm to disordered organizations. If PM’s keep accepting often ridiculous last minute “I need it yesterday” assignments like an army private accepting orders, project timelines are going to slide, teams are going to burn out and your company is going to be like a dog chasing its tail.

Keep in mind the following four questions when trying to decide if a fire is real or a false alarm.

Four Key Questions to Ask During a Fire Drill

Is it truly urgent?

Most likely it can be pushed for a few days.

Just because someone is telling people there’s a fire, doesn’t mean it’s out of control. Someone who frantically contacts you saying they need something that’s going to mean you’ll be working all night or all weekend to get it done – 99% of the time, they don’t even look at it for a week and they may not even give you feedback for a couple of weeks.

Ask questions about due dates, who is demanding the work, will a beta version be ok in a pinch? Can you re-purpose something for the occasion? Adjust your deliverables according to the answers you receive. By asking these questions, you may calm down the person responsible for the fire drill and let them see that things aren’t as bad as they first thought.

Repeated fire drills indicate a re-active, not a pro-active work style.

What’s the opportunity cost?

If all your energy is going toward the fire drill, what gets dropped?  Shifting focus to a new, urgent goal will let other items fall by the wayside.  Are you really helping your company if your other work doesn’t get completed?  

Make sure to let your boss know what’s not going to get done ahead of time, in writing.

What lessons can be learned?

After completion, try to understand why the fire drill happened and how it could have been prevented or anticipated. This is the most important question because you don’t want it to happen again, do you?

Does anyone need to be held accountable?

Did the fire drill occur because of a certain staff member or department? A fire drill may expose a segment of your staff who is unsuitable for their position. Repeated fire drills indicate a re-active, not a pro-active work style. Having the right people for each job is the key to moving in the right direction.


Don’t be part of the problem, be part of the solution. By pushing back on unreasonable demands, we can train our clients to be more reasonable as well. Maybe they can do the same to whoever is asking them.

We don’t work in a perfect business world.  Emergencies will continue to happen occasionally. By learning how to “reframe” these situations, you’ll be saving yourself and your company a lot of disruptions and stress. Using the key questions will guide you toward a future with fewer, less damaging fire drills.

In a world where global warming is the new normal, aren’t fewer flames a good thing?

Contact us at Virtira for a frank discussion about fire drills or any other project management topics. We look forward to hearing from you!

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