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Coronavirus Disease 2019

Which Fires Should You Put Out First?

Prioritizing decisions during crises.

Key points

  • A major challenge in business (and life) is knowing how to prioritize decisions—especially during moments of crisis.
  • Many strategies that emerge intuitively are not conducive to good decision-making.
  • A good strategy is to prioritize based on one’s values and objectives.
  • Deciding which fire to put out first can be at least as important as actually putting them out.
Alexas_Fotos in Pixabay
Source: Alexas_Fotos in Pixabay

A major challenge in business (and life) is knowing how to prioritize decisions. This becomes particularly crucial during moments of crisis, where decision-makers have to be both effective and efficient in their actions. And the bigger or longer the distress, the more crucial prioritization becomes.

The unfortunate and unusually long COVID-19 disaster offers a relevant example.

When the first big wave of the pandemic hit during the spring of 2020, managers from different levels of organizations had to deal with multiple problems arising simultaneously and at an unprecedented rate. Some of these involved customers, others employees, or operations. Things could suddenly and unpredictably go wrong in production, logistics, planning, investments, sales… you name it.

The question then became: Which fires to put out first?

Intuitive Yet Flawed Strategies

Some strategies for prioritization can emerge automatically and seem reasonable at first glance. But that doesn’t mean that they are conducive to good decision-making.

One spontaneous idea can be “first come, first served.” After all, that’s how we automatically order things in many life situations. But in business, the sequence in which problems occur doesn’t necessarily correlate with their importance.

Another idea would be to decide which problems to attack based on their perceived urgency. But that perception can be flawed, and worse, it is also susceptible to being influenced. After some time, everyone might start calling every problem “urgent” to grab decision-makers’ attention.

Yet another idea could be to favor those problems that can be solved quickly and with relative ease. But there may actually be a negative correlation between ease and importance: Many relevant problems may require some time and can be relatively harder to solve.

Anchoring on Values and Objectives

A better strategy would be to prioritize based on one’s values and objectives. Decisions don’t happen in a void. They depend on the context and on the aims of the decision maker. Hence, it becomes crucial to first accurately define what the context is and then reflect on one’s objectives within that context, given one’s values.

In a business context, values and objectives are represented by the company’s missions and visions. Organizations typically publish a summary of these on their websites, which then can be easily ignored or taken for granted. Yet these would provide a cheap, immediate, and reliable algorithm for ranking the problems to be tackled. As an added advantage, they also make it easy to justify the decisions to stakeholders both during and after the crisis.

Especially during a crisis, managers’ priorities define their character and their leadership ability. The decision of which fires to put out first can be at least as important as actually putting them out.


A related TED Talk about hard choices by Ruth Chang: