Grass Fire - Controlling Disasters

We can’t anticipate or control everything, but we can prepare our businesses and lives for dealing with crisis with a little less stress.

This past Saturday (in April 2016), a neighbor was cutting their long grass with a lawn tractor. It has been a dry winter and spring here, and the parched grass caught fire under the mower. The young man sat on the tractor trying to swat the growing flames out with a rag.

Another neighbor saw the predicament and ran out there with a fire extinguisher to assist. By then the grass fire was too big to put out, so they abandoned the effort as the flames consumed the lawn tractor.

Sitting in my house and oblivious to the unfolding situation, I heard a passing siren and thought nothing of it. The fire department is always down the highway to the latest grass fire this time of year. Then a fire department pickup truck drove into our driveway and across our front yard.

That got my attention.


We were lucky. The wind was light, and it was not blowing in its usual westerly direction.

Slowing its advance significantly, the field the fire pushed into was grazed short by a couple of retired horses. This allowed time for the fire department to arrive and quickly gain control of the fire. The only casualty was the lawn tractor.

Seemingly random factors all contributed to a fortunate outcome.

Yet for other people on the same day, events did not play out so well.

Anticipating Disaster

Ignoring the Warning Signs

Often there are little warning signs that we’ve learned to ignore. That tightness in the chest that feels like indigestion. The sirens you hear all the time passing down the road. The extremely dry conditions that are just right for a grass fire.

In business, this could be an employee whose behavior changes. You shrug it off because you don’t want to pry. Then a few months later, you have to deal with a major problem.

It could also be a slowdown in work coming from a significant client. It might be just a bump, or it could signify they are not happy with your performance. If you ignore it, you could lose them.

Your Blind Spots

In the case of the grass fire, it happened in a location that was not easily visible from the house because of the attached garage. Also, the wind was blowing the smoke away from our house. That delay in feedback could have been dangerous. You don’t know what you don’t know.

When we are in the middle of a situation, we often can’t see the real problem. Observer’s bias kicks in, and we see everything through our mind’s filter. If that interpretation is wrong, we make poor choices.

Most small businesses don’t measure very much. If they do measure, they are either looking backward at a point in time or watching vanity metrics. Getting your financial results from your bookkeeper tells you what happened in the past. Monitoring your follower count on Twitter or likes on your Facebook page doesn’t reveal anything terribly useful.

The key is to set up some measures that can act as a tripwire and give you advance warning of problems. Dropping numbers of sales meetings could indicate that your future sales and revenue are going to drop. Knowing this allows you to try and shift the outcome.

Handling Disaster

The Protector

Most men I know feel part of what defines them is the role of protector. That could be people, property, or even your business.

Don’t mess with it!

For some of us, this manifests as a desire to impose order and control on a situation. For others, this means taking action. When we can’t, we feel helpless. Like when a loved one gets cancer. You are forced to give up control to the experts. That energy has to go somewhere, with predictably unpredictable results.

When you are an entrepreneur, the business, your employees and your success, all seem like they are yours to protect. The stress can be short-term, or chronic if the firm has ongoing problems.

Preparation versus Improvisation

You can attempt to anticipate, prevent, and plan for common disasters or problems. You can install smoke detectors to give your family a warning. But real disasters have an element of randomness to them. Most families will never practice fleeing an actual burning house.

Instead, you can provide training and skills to deal with common scenarios. Then you can use those skills to improvise during a real problem. The skills give you more confidence and options because you don’t have to spend time figuring out what to do on the spot.

Disasters in business aren’t usually life threatening. Who will run payroll if your accounting person suddenly gets sick? If a salesperson suddenly quits, how will you transfer the long-term relationships with prospects and clients to someone else? Having those conversations and doing a little planning can make the impending disaster a non-event.

Putting out Fires

Grass Fire - Putting Out FiresWhether you work in business or own one, we are all firefighters. Some men see themselves as heroic and some behave as martyrs.

Sometimes the fires are too big. Sometimes you need help. Sometimes you need the fire department big time. The advent of 911 has made accessing emergency responders simpler.

In your business, who would your emergency responders be? Can you set up some relationships, build some knowledge of your organization, and establish that trust ahead of time? What can you change, so the problems don’t recur? Outsourcing a few functions where you don’t have bench depth might also be an option.

Pride and Prejudice

A lot of men I know pride themselves on being problem solvers, protectors, and not needing to rely on anyone else to solve problems. If it wasn’t for the safety of my observer’s bias, I might be guilty of that too at times.

You might even be really good at handling disasters. Even though the ongoing stress is a killer, being needed and important like that can be addicting.

Still, we might be better off with fewer disasters in the first place. If we plan, fix, and delegate correctly, we can save ourselves for those few random disasters where we are truly needed.

This post originally appeared on The Good Men Project.