Are You a Fire Fighting Arsonist?

September 21, 2010  

Innovation and Fire FightingImagine you are heading to a REALLY important meeting that is being held out of town. You have your bags packed. You have your airplane tickets, hotel and car rental reservations, and GPS.

You hop on the plane and fly to your destination. After deplaning, you pull out your hotel reservation and type the address into the GPS.

And then, you realize…you have a problem. A BIG problem.

Although your destination airport was Buffalo, NY, the event is being held just over the border in Ontario Canada…and you don’t have your passport.

I am completely embarrassed to admit it, but this happened to me just last week.

My speech was in Niagara Falls. For some reason I believed that the event was on the United States Side. This was a BAD assumption.

A friend once described herself as a fire fighting arsonist. She was constantly putting out fires that she started. I was beginning to understand what she meant.

If you were in my situation, what would have gone through your mind?

During my 45 minute drive from Buffalo to the border crossing, I went through three distinct phases of thought.

Phase 1: “Oh $#*!” – Not a very useful phase, but I had to acknowledge the reality of the situation

Phase 2: What can I do to get into Canada? – I first considered swimming across Niagara Falls. If I were Michael Phelps, then that might be an option. But I am not. I then pondered begging and bribery as options. But I needed to consider more practical solutions. It is amazing what the mind can remember when it is pressed. I recalled the fact that I had once taken a picture of my passport and that the image was on my computer. I thought through all of my documents: contracts, hotel reservations, car rental agreements, and return airplane tickets.

Phase 3: What would I do if I couldn’t get into Canada? – Getting into the country was not guaranteed.  Therefore I needed to think through what I would do to best serve the customer in light of this situation.  I considered how I might deliver the speech via video Skype. Given that it was a Personality Poker session, I thought through ways of getting decks across the border.  I even thought through a list of innovation speakers I know in Canada, which admittedly, is not a very long list.

After I went through all of this in my mind, I finally arrived at the border crossing.

I tell this (very embarrassing) story to make a point.

Your ability to solve problems is your key to success. The bigger the “game” you are playing, the bigger your problems will be. You cannot be stuck in “phase 1” and be paralyzed by the situation.  Finding productive solutions is critical.

The same is true for organizations.

Some problems are obvious, like self-inflicted ones, pervasive quality issues, or those evident from an eroding market share.

But sometimes the most important challenges are in our blind-spots. These represent the biggest opportunities:

  • Strategic opportunities for developing new products, services, or business models
  • Marketing opportunities that would grow market share
  • Process improvement opportunities that would create time for innovation
  • “Cultural” issues that prevent innovation (e.g., not-invented-here syndrome, poor collaboration, etc)

Innovation is nothing more than identifying, prioritizing, solving and implementing your most important challenges in the most efficient way.

Mastering this one single skill will catapult your organization to higher levels. There are many articles on this blog discussing problem solving and challenge-driven innovation. And more articles will be written in the future.

You may be wondering how my personal story ends.

Fortunately I was able to get into Canada. It did not take too long and they were very friendly. They asked for most of the documents I had already catalogued in my mind.

Interestingly, I was told that if I were a Canadian trying to get into the US, it would be a lot more difficult and I would probably not have been allowed in.

The morning after my speech, I wanted to make sure I did not get stuck at the US border crossing, so I left my hotel 5 hours before my flight. Given it is a 45 minute trip, I figured that should give me enough time to deal with any kind of interrogation.

I get to the border crossing. The guard looks at my driver’s license. Asks me the city I was born in and lets me through. I got to the airport with almost 4.5 hours to spare.

My days of being a fire fighting arsonist are over. It is too much work and too much stress. I would rather focus on more productive challenges!

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One Response to “Are You a Fire Fighting Arsonist?”

  1. Susanne Goldstein on September 21st, 2010 1:13 pm

    Great story and great lesson on creativity, problem solving and darn good luck!