Pulling the fire alarm isn’t a bad thing.  The alarm keeps people safe.  If you smell smoke and don’t pull it, you’re responsible for the people who died because they couldn’t get out. I don’t care if you’re the janitor, a visitor, or the owner of the building, if you smell smoke you have to pull the alarm as soon as you smell smoke. The longer you wait the more potentially irreparable damage has been done. Better to evacuate the building than have to deal with knowing lives were lost because you were too afraid of looking like a fool.

Why then do teams hesitate to raise their hand and ask for help when they are behind or more importantly think they may be getting behind? It comes down to both a culture and a training issue.

The cultural issue is what the fire alarm means.  People are afraid to speak up because they think it will send the message that there is a lack of trust in the team, lack of their own ability, or that somehow they will share in the blame of why the project went wrong.

In reality pulling the alarm is an act of protecting the team and project success; that person is the hero.

The training issue comes into play when the alarm is pulled. Often times the response is yelling, blaming, or trying to figure out what caused the fire. Instead the response should be as automatic as a fire drill.

  1. Evacuate – we make sure that everything is safe that can be made safe and that all extraneous people and things are out of the way. We remove anyone not critical to solving the problem both to insulate the other deadlines from damage and also to make the team as small and agile as possible.
  2. Respond – a specialized team of experts is sent in to put the fire out. They don’t care what started it. They are laser focused and have full authority and ability to do whatever necessary to get the fire out. Remember the building is empty and made safe from collateral damage at this point. Think agile swarming.
  3. Investigate – after the fire is out and everyone accounted for then you figure out how it started so you can avoid another dangerous situation. This is the lowest priority. The rules of a good post-mortem or retrospective apply here. This is not a blame and shame event, but rather a time to gather insights to make the team better and work safer.

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