It’s a gloomy Monday morning and again, three of your five-strong team are off sick – but who can blame them? It was a tough week last week. Julie from accounts forgot to process the refunds, so Mr Thomas and Mrs White have been calling to find out when you’ll be giving them their money back, and whether you’ll increase their settlement as this is yet another thing that has gone wrong.

To top it all off, you just remembered that your boss wanted a report on the rise in complaints by end of day Friday. You had it ready to go, but you got distracted at the last minute and never hit send…

If you’re a leader on the front line, the chances are that at some point you might have felt like all you do is fight fires. You might even be pretty good at it – appearing calm on the surface whilst like a duck you are paddling away frantically underneath the water, doing all you can just to stay afloat.

Once you’re stuck in a fire fighting loop; it’s very difficult to get out of it. It will be practically impossible to break the cycle unless you recognise it for what it is, notice it happening to you, and take proactive steps to bring about change.

Why do things need to change? Because staying in crisis mode is bad for your health – dealing with unexpected issues on a day to day basis will gradually erode your wellbeing to the point of burnout. It’s also bad for business…

Don’t forget that what impacts you, impacts your customer. The link between employee satisfaction and customer satisfaction is long-established. Did you also know that one of the key symptoms of severe stress is forgetfulness? You might be the most organised person in the world, but under stress you are not you, and mistakes will happen.

Take a deep breath… You can fix this.

Who’s heard of a time management quadrant? The quadrant splits your work tasks into four distinct categories. There’s urgent and important tasks (Q1), non-urgent important tasks (Q2), urgent non-important tasks (Q3) and non-urgent, non-important tasks. (Q4)


Write down all the things you did at work in the last week. Now allocate them to a section of the quadrant. If you were to add up all the hours spent on each task, how much time would you spend in each quadrant? If you spend most of your time doing urgent tasks whether important or not important (Q1 or Q3), the chances are your stress levels might be higher than if you spent most of your time working on important but not urgent tasks (Q2). You might also find that you run out of time to put in place some of the Q2 tasks that are essential to running a business or team (such as team engagement like one to ones, process improvements or strategic planning).

Most of us spend too much of our time in Q1, Q3 and Q4. Q2 is where we want to be and there are some things you can do to help yourself move towards a more balanced working week. The initial strategy to balance your quadrants is to cut out Q4 and reduce Q3. The time this frees up should be spent in Q2 removing all controllable causes of Q1 tasks (preventing fires before they start). Once all underlying causes have been mitigated, the result will be less time in Q1 and more time to spend in Q2 – creating a positive feedback loop whereby you can spend actual, quality time on strategy, business improvement and, even, just thinking.

Understand the Impact to Your Culture

First, work with other senior leaders and team members to review the bigger picture. How big a problem is there? Then, have them all perform the time management quadrant assessment, and look at where you sit as an organisation. Is this something that is indicative of a wider cultural issue that needs a collective effort to tackle? Once you know the scale of the challenge, you can look at tactical moves such as bringing in temporary staff to clear backlogs and end vicious cycles, or changing processes to give yourself more time to achieve important tasks in a non-urgent way.

Work Backwards

Review an urgent task that you need to deliver regularly. Look at when it is due, and how much time it usually takes to perform it. If it takes a week to do and you know you need to deliver a result by the last working day of the month, start working on that task by the 15th and build in extra time to counteract the possibilities of other urgent tasks taking you away from your goal. This takes a potential Q1 task and ensures it remains as Q2 – reducing your stress and (hopefully) improving the quality of the output.

If you are reliant on another team to help you deliver, make sure the project goals are clearly communicated, that they know what you need from them, and that they have committed to completing it within an agreed timeframe.

Work as a team to make sure that you get what you need and to take the rush away from your task.

Learn to Say No

Saying no can make us feel guilty, it can leave us feeing unhelpful, and we may end up concerned that we appear unwilling to work as a team. It’s crucial to know your limits, know your own priorities and be prepared to politely – but firmly – speak up if something is out of scope of your project, or would delay the important priorities you have been charged with. You don’t always have to issue a flat out no either, you could suggest an alternative deadline that you could achieve, or find a middle ground that would enable them to get to the same result they need without you having to use so much time or team resource to do so.

Review Your Learning

If you constantly find yourself fighting the same fires, set time aside each week to look at what happened, why it happened, and what could be done to stop it happening in the same way again. Ask yourself those three questions for each task that falls into either of the urgent quadrants.

For example: if you found that your week was spent dealing with complaints relating to refunds not being processed in time (which subsequently had to be treated as urgent and important due to the impact on the customer experience and potential brand damage), it could look something like this.

What happened? Refunds were not processed in time, leading to four customer complaints

Why did it happen? Julie from accounts who usually processes refunds took last minute leave and didn’t notify you that she wouldn’t be able to do the refunds; or tell her manager that the refunds had not been done.

What could be done to prevent it from happening again? Ask that Julie trains a colleague to also issue refunds, and that between them they try to avoid taking leave on the same day. Ask that leave dates are sent as an FYI to customer-facing departments at least 2 weeks prior to taking, to ensure customer expectations could be managed if needed. Look into whether there is an option to remove the manual element of the task and automate refunds with a simpler process that benefits customers.

Listen to your customers and get proactive

Once you open the floodgates to feedback, and make it as easy as possible for customers to let you know what they love and what frustrates them, you will have all the tools you need to get the root cause of any complaints coming in. Once you know the cause, you can start to work on fixing it ahead of it going wrong – potentially preventing the complaints from coming in at all. If you don’t quite manage to prevent the problem in time, take back control and get in touch with your customer before they even have to pick up the phone. By reaching out proactively you have taken some of the inconvenience for the customer away, and you show them that you care enough to notice their problem. It will make for an easier, quicker resolution and fewer complaints in the long run. That will free up your time.

Whatever course of action you choose to take, think of it like this: if you’re constantly putting out fires, you don’t buy a bigger hose – you get rid of the dry wood.


Check out the previous instalments of Bill and Doug:
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