My very first job in the arts, which was well over a decade ago, made me an expert in putting out fires. Most days were an exercise in solving one very urgent problem and then running to the next.
I took pride in my ability to do that. But in hindsight, I realized that it is not something you want to be good at.
One of the most crucial things to realize in any organization, but particularly an artistic one, is that dealing with urgent matters and making progress are two very separate things. You can do stuff all day but accomplish very little.
What makes it challenging is that all that "doing stuff", all that "fire stopping" can feel like real work. It can feel like progress. That's because it appeals to the part of our brain that loves touching things and then seeing a quick response. It's almost like a slot machine. Seeing something urgent and then quickly fixing it can feel very satisfying.
Then, inevitably, you start to encounter those things that can't be solved quickly. You face the sort of problems that you can't get through with a few emails and meetings. It's at that point that you realize how unequipped you are to create real change and progress.
When that moment hit me I made a few promises to myself:
1. Some fires I would just let burn - If people know that you are just going to jump from one urgent thing to the other then everything becomes urgent. Sometimes you have to see the problem, know it is a problem, but just let it go for now and deal with it later.
2. I would give the people I work with as many long term challenges to grapple with as possible - I think it's a leaders job to keep people focused on the long term.
3. I wouldn't praise myself for fire stopping - Yes, sometimes you have to deal with a fire. But after I did I would immediately check that little part of my brain that screams "Yeah, you did something" and remind it that fire stopping isn't progress.
Those three steps help me stay focused. You may come up with better ones. Either way it's important that you have some system, even a small one, to not allow yourself to get distracted by the small fires and stay focused on the big picture.