Starting Fires

One of our investment partners forwarded me and Daryl the latest Brain Food newsletter from Shane at Farnam Street. He highlighted this portion.

The continuum of Problem-solving:

You solve the visible problem.

You avoid the problem.

When solving visible problems, it’s easy to signal value creation to others. If you work in a large organization with a regular paycheck, few people ask if the problems should exist in the first place. Instead, everyone thinks you’re indispensable because you’re so busy solving problems.

As you move toward avoiding problems before they happen, visibility decreases. Explaining what you do all day becomes harder and more subjective. Rewarding people for something that didn’t happen is very difficult. Thus, it becomes risky for the employee to avoid problems.

Entrepreneurs (and others with skin in the game) naturally move away from the visible problems and into the invisible ones. When you have something to lose, you care less about signalling and more about outcomes.

Shane Parrish

My reply included that I agree we are trying to move towards the invisible problems. I also said it reminded me that when you have someone in your business that is good at putting out fires you need to evaluate if they are the one starting them. I hit send on the reply and went back to the rest of my inbox.

But my brain came back to this fire starting analogy. Not all fires are bad. There is the concept of a controlled burn in forest management. Is the next level of problem solving in business the equivalent of the control burn? Do you ever cause problems in your business?

Sometimes I do.

I’ll intentionally not do a task as quickly as possible to see if the response time I usually give is necessary. (hint: it often isn’t)

I’ll give someone a task to do that I don’t expect them to be able to complete.

I’ll jump in on a small issue and elevate it to a higher level. Maybe this isn’t starting a new fire, but I’ll fan the flames of an existing tiny one.

Ideally this controlled burn problem starting is very tiny and well within my ability to throw some water on it. Sometimes the fire helps clean up some dead brush in a task that no longer needs to be done. Sometimes the fire reveals a skill that someone didn’t know they had. Occasionally having to fight a small fire prevents a bigger one years in the future.

But sometimes they do a get a little out of hand. Use with care.

A very small fire I helped start.