5 Steps to Guide Your Team Out of ‘Firefighting’ Mode

5 Steps to Guide Your Team Out of ‘Firefighting’ Mode

Is everything a priority at work? Are you constantly being bombarded with meaningless work that wasn’t planned out? 

Yep. Been there. It sucks. 

There’s a name we have for it. 

Firefighting mode

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Unfortunately, it comes without a fantastic truck and uniforms. 

However, it does come with plenty of headaches, hair loss, and frustration

Here’s the reality….an organization doesn’t get there overnight. At its core, it typically boils down to a lack of vision and communication

Employees need those fundamental ingredients to prioritize their tasks at will. This leads to chaos, with everyone running every which way, making simple tasks much more complicated. 

Creating healthy, sustainable processes is an unsolvable mystery. 

Do you want to constantly dive into emergencies with a moment to focus on proactive planning and strategy? 

Didn’t think so. You are in luck! It’s possible to shift your team from reactive mode to proactive success with the right strategies. 

One effective method is implementing a Kanban board to visualize workflow and enhance efficiency. This blog post will outline five practical steps to help your team control the scene. 

Step 1: Setting Priorities and Establishing Clear Goals

The first step in moving from firefighting to proactive planning is setting priorities and defining clear goals. Sit down with your team to identify the most critical tasks and determine what success looks like for each.

Make sure to cast a wide net to collect feedback and opinions from as many team members as possible. Each person's unique perspective and experience will paint a complete picture for you. 

When setting goals — don’t forget to make sure they follow S.M.A.R.T.

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S: Specific: Clear, detailed, and well-defined. Outline what you want to accomplish, who is involved, why it’s critical, and any constraints or requirements.

Example: Implement a new onboarding program that includes standardized training modules, mentorship opportunities, and knowledge assessments to increase employee performance and satisfaction and reduce errors. Constraints include resource limitations, change resistance, and technological constraints. 

M: Measurable: Each goal requires defined metrics, quantities, or milestones that you can use to track your progress and determine when the goal has been achieved.

Example: Increase employee proficiency levels by 20% after completing the onboarding training program, as measured by performance evaluations and post-training assessments.

A: Achievable: Is the goal realistic and attainable? Consider resources and skills, and determine if the goal is within reach with effort and commitment. 

Example: Enhance training readiness by providing access to online learning resources, conducting regular skills development workshops, and assigning mentors to guide employees through their training journey.

R: Relevant: Think about the overall business outcomes. Do your goals align with short and long-term plans? 

Example: Align the training readiness program with the company’s strategic goals of fostering a culture of continuous learning, employee growth, and readiness to adapt to industry changes.

T: Time-bound: Draw the line in the sand. Setting suspense creates a sense of urgency and helps rack & stack priorities. 

Example: Roll out the updated training readiness program by the end of the first quarter to ensure all employees have completed the initial modules within the calendar year.

Step 2: Implementing a Kanban Board

Don’t worry — you are perfectly fine if you don’t know what a Kanban board is. It’s a fancy word for an organized visual workflow. Most people become exposed to them when they are dealing with project management. 

But if you think about it….nearly everything is a “project,” so the applicability and use are relevant to stopping “fires.” 

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A Kanban board will quickly convert your complex workflows into visual, manageable tasks. By addressing the root cause of workplace fires (Vision / Communication), a Kanban board helps everyone “see” and “communicate” team goals. 

 This will give your team a structured framework for tracking progress, managing deadlines, and increasing productivity. 

How to Set-up

Using a whiteboard or string yarn, create three equal-sized columns: “To-Do,” “In Progress,” and “Done.” 

Write your tasks/goals on Post-it notes, then place each in its respective column. Pro tip: Priority items are closest to the top. 

Congratulations! Your team now has a visual representation that allows them to see where tasks stand in the workflow at a glance, making it easier to prioritize, allocate resources effectively, and identify bottlenecks.

As the leader, ensure you are involved early on but gradually take a step back to empower your team members to update the board regularly. 

Another nice perk of this strategy is that it provides a very easy visual for your leadership to identify what your team is focusing on. 

Step 3: Conducting Regular Team Meetings

I’m including this as a step because it’s important to note that a Kanban board DOES NOT replace meetings. 

You can see what everyone is working on and where it stands, but it’s much more than a queue viewer. The real value is gained when everyone meets to discuss progress, challenges, and upcoming tasks. 

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Establish a meeting battle rhythm (preferably early in the work week in the morning). This time will create stability and allow everyone to address roadblocks and adjust priorities together. 

Step 4: Empowering Team Members and Delegating Responsibly

Depending on the volume of work and the size of your team, you might be dealing with 20+ post-it notes on the board. Hence, step #4: Delegation. You will have to delegate tasks to your subordinates. 

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The bottom right of each sticky note includes the name of the OPR (Office Professional Responsibility) for the task. I color-coded the sticky notes based on the work section. Adding a member to the bottom right creates ownership and a sense of responsibility. 

For example, the help desk is blue, the network team is red, etc. 

Your goal as a leader is to encourage autonomy and trust within the team, enabling each member to own their responsibilities. Delegate tasks based on individual strengths and workload, ensuring a balanced distribution of work.

Step 5: Recognize Hard Work

As you have noticed, the first four steps are just casting a vision and getting everyone on the same page. 

Regardless of how successful you are in implementing steps #1–4, anticipate “unplanned” work. You cannot control or prevent your team from facing a fire or two. The main point of these steps is to keep your fire hoses pointed the same way. 

Hopefully, by this point, you will recognize significant differences in achieving business outcomes and in your employees' performance and satisfaction. 

So, give credit where credit is due. Kudos to those who exceeded everyone's expectations. I recommend presenting praise or awards at your team meetings. Keep it a secret and surprise them. This will instill a sense of accomplishment and pride within your team. 

The goal is to create a positive and supportive work environment that builds team cohesion and productivity. 


Alright — here’s a recap of how to get your team out of “firefighting” mode. 

#1: Set Priorities and Establish Goals
#2: Build a Kanban board
#3: Regular team meetings
#4: Delegate tasks
#5: Recognize hard work

Just remember, this won’t be an overnight success. It will require getting everyone in the same room and taking some L’s as you invest in this framework. After some time, you will notice everyone working together and succeeding. 

Be patient, delegate, and get after it.

Happy Reading, 



by Brandon Seyl – July 07, 2024

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