The Fire Principle



I was called into the director’s office. “Please drop everything and come immediately.”

And so I did, as this was my “dotted-line” manager where I was head of logistics finance for Western Europe at the time.

In there I was a bit puzzled, asking, “What is so important”?

And he answered: “Lars, I have called you in here because of the fire principle”.

Speaking in metaphors was his style. Over the years I came to love this style, as it was full of business wisdom.

“Look”, he said. “This morning I have received an email from our Chief Manufacturing Officer. In the email, he shared a comparison of logistics costs from all global regions. And the numbers for our region stand out with several questions, and I believe the data is not correct.”

“The thing is,” he continued, “if we leave it now and wait for a couple of days, we will get more and more questions. The fire will spread. But if we act now, send out a picture of the correct situation, we can extinguish that fire without a big deal. That’s what the fire principle is all about:

Extinguish the fire while it’s still small, without a lot of effort.

“That’s why I have cancelled everything, and that’s why I asked you to do the same. Let’s craft the answer and correct everything before it spreads.”

And sure enough, after 2 hours of work we were able to provide an accurate situation, correct the figure and write an email that clarified everything. The CMO was happy. All was ok. No follow-ups afterwards.

Some days later the situation would probably have been much more difficult to fix, with meetings, debates, update presentations, crisis corrections etc.

Of course one needs to figure out where to focus on, and when something really is a potential fire vs just noise. This experience grows over time.

Since then the lessons fire principle has served me well in my leadership endeavors.

Some example for applications of the fire principle:

  • If e.g. a direct report e.g. sends you sloppy work (with e.g. spelling mistakes etc.): Don’t correct it yourself, don’t wait. Address it immediately.
  • If you’re not sure whether e.g. remote working position won’t work: Go in and and set standards immediately. Don’t wait until the bi-annual review.
  • If somebody from your team openly challenges your authority as a leader in a team meeting: Talk to that person immediately afterwards. Don’t think it will go away, otherwise you set a precedent.

The key thing is: Act fast, act directly, and the time investment and potential harm done is potentially still small.

Have you had similar experiences applying the fire principle? I’d love to hear from you.

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