Putting out the biggest fires

I am usually a very regimented person, and crave process and structure. Some would even say too black and white, as I need to allow for some grey areas and unknowns. I agree with this feedback and take it to heart. It wasn’t until I started to build the inside sales team at Foursquare that I really saw it as a something to work on and something to watch out for that I realized its importance. To help with this I use an expression that I first heard from my former colleague and friend Dave Greenberger, now head of sales at Splash, which is; “put out the biggest fires”.

fire
Dave came onboard to help manage the inside sales team we were building at Foursquare and there was a lot to do.  During his interview process he brought up his methodology to handling things like; recruiting, hiring, churn, customer service, technology woes, everything really…
At first I was taken back as it went against my need to prepare and plan, but I knew my approach also wasn’t working. I went with my gut that this was the right approach – and seeing it in action it was.
Putting out the biggest fires has become a startup mantra for me because it goes well beyond inside sales. It is a more tactical version of the cliche of building a startup “it’s like jumping off a cliff and building a plane on the way down” This phrase  is almost too glamorous and non-genuine as it doesn’t get at the heart of the matter. It doesn’t capture the actual day to day maneuvering that is necessary.
Putting out the largest fires is embracing the fact that there are fires in the first place. Everything is not perfect, and that is perfectly fine.  It is probably half the reason most people join a new startup in the first place.  Any attempt to sweep problems under the rug and hide from them isn’t a good approach, and this gets them out in the open.
You can’t prevent all the turmoil, but you can influence how you deal with it. This was WHEN someone comes with an issue (not if) you can process and fix vs waste time and energy on WHY. Doing a Post Mortem and placing blame are not helpful in the moment. They can help after, but if you are only focused on the end and the potential bad outcomes, you are not adequately preparing for reality. Things happen. Stuff will break. Fires will burn. By taking on the “put out the biggest fires” you are stating that you know things will go wrong but you are willing to do something about it.
So thanks Dave for making this part of my startup strategy book. As I work with teams and companies more and more this advice comes up, and writing it all down gives me a chance to reference it in the future and check myself with folks who have opposing views. Let me know if you have seen this work, or have a different approach.