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Fire Drills

What to do when major problems appear?


By Fred Engel

Westerly Consulting


I came into the office early the other day and “Bill” was sitting in my office waiting for me.  Bill, QA lead on the project, finally got to test the full functionality and it was bad news.  His team had stayed late the night before to double check the problematic functionality.  The stability issues had been resolved in the daily Scrums. The functionality just did not make sense. No sane customer could use this stuff.  It had to be re-thought and fixed.


We went to see the Lead Engineer, “Sally”, to see what she thought. She was not surprised.  This piece had been late and problematic.  The project just seemed to get harder and harder as time passed. We called “Jim”, the Product Manager into the meeting and got the same perspective from him.


The short story was that our process, which was generally followed, was short circuited here because people initially felt this project was too simple and easy to go through all the reviews we like to have.  As things got worse, people just kept plugging at it trying to fix the problems without stepping back to solve the real problem. As a consequence, we now had a mess on our hands. 


We all agreed it was time for a “Fire Drill”.


How to start a fire drill?


The basic concept of a fire-drill is to get as much muscle on the problem as possible as quickly as possible to make every decision that can be found. As the leader, I took charge of the fire-drill.


Steps to getting a fire drill going are:


1.  Let upper management know a fire drill is being started and their support is required.

2.  Get the most senior people involved in the project into the same room immediately, this is necessary and reinforces the urgency.

3.  Make it clear that this fire-drill constitutes everyone’s #1 priority.  Exceptions come only from you, the person in charge.

4.  Let everyone know that this team will “make every decision that it can find”.

5.  Put the problem statement up on a screen (or board) and wordsmith it until everyone agrees, no abstentions.

6.  Each group in the room is assigned the task of coming back in some small amount of time (hours, next day) with everything that is wrong and what they think needs to be done with it.

7.  Send a note to the rest of the people letting them know that a fire-drill has been started and that the listed people will be unavailable to help in anything else that they have committed to.

8.  Be available to get everyone on board for these new priorities, there will be a backlash.

9.  Wander around to make sure people are heeding the priorities of the fire drill.


The people involved in a project have a much harder time making decisions when major problems appear. They are overwhelmed with their own emotions and fear, creating a volatile situation.  For most people on a project, clear leadership is the only way to get things moving.  


How this problem occurred is not part of the fire drill. Fire drills are about decisions and forward progress, not archeology or blame.  As the leader you will be absorbing most of the risk of the upcoming decisions making it easier for everyone to participate.   In a fire drill decisions are made very quickly, giving it its power.


Fire drill meetings are iterative. As they move forward in time fewer issues remain open and fewer items remain in the dark. Each meeting discovers the next layer of problems and needed decisions:


1.  Expose to the light of day absolutely everything that could be wrong.

2.  Determine the possible solutions to the problems.

3.  Find the least bad solution to the problem and take it.

4.  Cut through the politics by taking personal responsibility for decisions.

5.  Give people a chance to discuss why the chosen decision is going to work. Rough consensus will usually work, otherwise you decide.

6.  Keep going until all available decisions are made.


This methodology only works for short amounts of time. If a fired-drill lasts more than a couple of months, it loses its sense of urgency and effectiveness.  Fire-drills are about redirecting the team quickly and effectively in a winning direction.


Lastly, there will be a need to fix the bad decisions that were made.  It is a good habit to keep the fire-drill team together a while in the form of weekly meetings.  At least in the short run, the team will be comfortable airing problems and re-working the decisions.  Once the bad decisions have been found, it is time to disband the team.

Send comments to: fred@westerlyconsulting.com