Corporate Firefighting with the Fire Triangle
by Michael L. Perla

The fire triangle is a tool that is used in understanding the dynamics of a fire and the elements to target in fighting one. There are 3 elements that need to be present for a fire to happen: (1) heat (e.g., a match); (2) air (oxygen); and (3) fuel (e.g., wood). If one of these elements is not present, a fire will not start. Like many things in life, and in business, fire is a paradox in that it can keep you warm and make some food edible, yet it can also destroy your home and existence. In light of the robustness of this tool and its parsimony with regard to firefighting, a common metaphor used in business, I believe the fire triangle can effectively be used in understanding problems ("fires") within organizations.

Heat

Within the right environment (i.e., one with oxygen and fuel), heat is essentially the catalyst for a fire and can ignite a helpful or hurtful event. "Turning up the heat" is a common phrase for getting someone to act or make a decision. In terms of a problem, or a fire in this case, there are a couple of questions that should be asked in designing, developing, and deploying a solution around the heat element.

  1. What are the potential causes or drivers (catalysts) of the fire? Although numerous pundits caution against a cause orientation, stating that it can be futile and blame-centric, most fires have multiple causes that can be identified, dissected, and modified. There are usually 2-4 causes that account for most of the explanatory insight into any problem. Focus on these.

  2. Why is this fire an important issue? This question is looking at the impacts of the fire on the organization, and the probability it could spread to other areas. Understanding what would happen if you did nothing should help to flesh out the answer.

Air (Oxygen)

Air or oxygen can be thought of as the overriding culture of an organization in terms of identifying problems and deploying problem solving strategies. Some fires are seen as opportunities and/or challenges, two particularly common euphemisms, while others are seen as chronic and immutable issues. Organizations that punish reasoned mistakes and perceptive problem identification could engender a corporate air that is hard to breathe and aggravating to many productive conditions. Some pertinent questions for the air element include the following:

  1. How are similar problems solved within the organization and what can you learn from them? This is the classic 'learnings' and best-practices orientation and not re-inventing the wheel.

  2. What are the barriers/enablers to problem solving in your organization and how can you take advantage of, or overcome, them? This question is essentially a force-field analysis in terms of looking at the driving and restraining factors to reaching your solution state. Brainstorm a list for each area, weight each factor, and focus on the top ones.

Fuel

Fires do not continue to burn unless there is an ample supply of fuel. Fuel is the vehicle by which isolated flare-ups turn into out-of-control wildfires, destroying everything in their paths. Where the air element is more macro in terms of the organization's cultural behaviors, beliefs, and assumptions, the fuel element is more personal in terms of the way those in power, the fire chiefs, so to speak, act in the face of fires. Do the fire chiefs look the other way, letting fires get out of control? Do they add to the elements or drivers causing the fire, not understanding their connection to the fire itself? Do they calmly and responsibly dissect the entire fire chain and triangle elements and apply the necessary vehicles to stop the fire in its tracks and learn to prevent future flare-ups? Some pertinent questions for the fuel element include the following:

  1. How willing are the fire chiefs to look at realities' ugly truths? The health of a person, much the same as an organization, is measured by their willingness to quickly and candidly confront the problems before them.

  2. How willing are the fire chiefs to invest in fire prevention and education? The best way to prevent an injury, or fire in this case, is to not let it happen in the first place. This is the idea behind some risk management, and front-end loaded prevention and foresight.

Conclusion

The fire triangle is one conceptual tool for the organizational problem solver's toolbox. Like most models or tools, it is simplified and inherently iterative, yet it provides a focus for understanding different problem elements and how they interact. As stated in the introduction, if you take away or suppress one of the elements or components of a fire, a fire is less likely to start. For example, an organization that understands the causes of fires, that is willing to look at the signs of impending fires, and that creates a fire prevention culture is less likely to have to deal with costly wildfires and all the collateral damage associated with them. In the end, if we think of capitalism as a giant problem solving experiment, the fire triangle can help us in dissecting the catalysts, the cultures, and the constraints of its inhabitants, the disparate organizations that struggle for sustenance (i.e., cash flow) and growth (e.g., market share).


Michael L. Perla is a Senior Consultant with a leading Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software company. This article solely represents the thoughts and opinions of Michael L. Perla, and not the company in which he is currently employed. Michael has worked with numerous Fortune 500 companies in helping them to define and design their go-to-market strategy, to build a business case, or to better align their core business processes and strategic direction. In a former life, Michael worked as a School Psychologist. Michael's personal web site, including his email address, is located at http://www.michaelperla.com .

Many more articles on Performance Improvement in The CEO Refresher Archives

   


Copyright 2002 by Michael L. Perla. All rights reserved.

Current Issue - Archives - CEO Links - News - Conferences - Recommended Reading