Friday 16 March 2018

School Leaders, Crisis Management and Putting Out Fires - what can be done?

In a recent DfE (2018) report senior leaders described their role as ‘akin to ‘crisis’ management much of the time:’ (p21).  My intention is this post is to help senior leaders develop and implement a set of principles which can help prevent most crises and reduce the time senior leaders spend ‘fire-fighting’.  To help do this I am going to draw up work of Bohn (2000) who identifies a set of circumstances when ‘fire-fighting’ has become chronic within an organisation.  Bohn then goes on to provide a model of fire-fighting  and suggests three methods for reducing the amount of firefighting within an organisation.

Are you working in an organisation where ‘fire-fighting’ has become the norm?

Bohn suggests that you are working in an organisation where ‘fire-fighting’ has become the norm if you are the victim of three of the following elements
  • There is not enough time to solve problems
  • Solutions are incomplete
  • Problems recur and cascade
  • Urgency supersedes importance
  • Many problems become crises
  • Performance drops 

Before looking at how to prevent ‘fires’ I’m going to look at a simple model which shows the effects of fire-fighting syndrome.

The effects of fire-fighting syndrome - amended form Bohn 

The consequence of this model is that firms/schools are trying to solve more problems than they have resources to deal with.  Sometimes this leads to minor problems being put to one side or it can consume an organisation’s (school) resources and lead to some of the organisation’s (school’s) best problem leaving through say frustration and burn out. 
How to  prevent fires?

Bohn argues that instead of putting a place ‘quick fixes’ leaders and managers should focus on three specific and systematic methods.

Add temporary problem solvers
If possible draft in resources (people) to try and address the issue

Shut down operations
Can an activity be shut down to give time to fix the problem
Perform triage
Admit that some problems won’t be solved for a while and commit resources to those that are important and can be solved
Change design strategies
Try and come up with generic approaches to new development can be used in multiple circumstances and types of issues 

Solve classes of problems
Look for groups that can be solved together – rather than individual diverse problems

Use learning lines
When running ‘pilot’ projects don’t set up special groups with additional resources, try and implement within a normal situation

Develop more problem solvers
Get more people involved in solving problems
Don’t tolerate patching
Leaders must focus and support real permanent solutions rather than look for the quick fix

Don’t push to meet deadlines at all costs
Can you be flexible on deadlines -measure projects by looking at outstanding issues and problems

Don’t reward fire-fighting
Identify and support those colleagues who are good at preventing fires and engage in long-term problem solving.  Don’t give prominence to those colleagues who are constantly putting out fires

And finally

Although it's never easy to move from a fire-fighting mode to an approach which is more proactive - it's only ever going to get done if leaders begin to prioritise resources to address underlying issues - rather than constantly responding with a quick-fix.  Although school leaders may not be able to choose the external or internal pressures that create crises, school leaders can choose how they are going to respond and whether these problems are resolved or just swept under the carpet.


Bohn, R. (2000). Stop Fighting Fires. Harvard Business Review. 78. 4. 82-91.

DfE. (2018). Exploring Teacher Workload: Qualitative Research Report: March 2018. London. Department for Education

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