You can’t innovate while your house is on fire


Email *dings* then *dings* again. Slack notifications come flying in. Your phone rings - there's a problem. Sounds like it's going to be a bad day.

We've all had days like that. They're a part of modern business life. But if too many days are like that - worse, if every day is like that - you're going to be paying a price. I'm not talking about mental health, although that would likely be a factor if you're in a constant state of alarm. I'm talking about a lack of innovation.

You can't innovate while your house is on fire.

Work, fast and slow

I think there are two kinds of work - fast work, and slow work. Fast work is dashing from meeting to meeting, call to call. Quickly solving issues and dealing with incidents. Processing and replying to email. Dealing with constant interruptions, fires, or things that seem to drag you in.

Slow work is different. Slow work is work like designing a new strategy, building a new feature in your application, or optimising a business process. Slow work is often the big things.

Slow work needs space to allow it to happen – both time and attention. It can't easily be done in the gaps between fast work. Fast work can grow and consume all of your available time, like a living creature, so there's no room left for slow work. If you can focus on important, strategic, slow work while firefighting fast work, you're better at this than me. I need space to create. I think many people do.

Innovation is slow work. It requires space, thought, and a quiet mind. It requires attention.

Organisational headspace

Humans have attention. Consistently focused attention is what we use to get challenging work done. I believe that organisations also have attention. The ability of the organisation to focus. It's part of the organisational culture. I like to think about that organisational attention as "headspace" – and the environment which your teams work in strongly influences that headspace.

If the environment that you work in is unreliable, full of constant interruptions, and filled with fires you need to put out – if the environment only makes space for fast work – then your organisation’s headspace won’t be on innovation. Your team’s won’t be either. And neither can yours.

In the context of IT – that’s unreliable and failing systems, constant slowdowns, outages, failed processes, and general technology complaints. These all absorb that organisational headspace. They impact staff and customers. They affect morale. They result in meetings, firefighting, and a lack of space for innovation.

Creating the space

If you want to innovate, and you're dealing with daily problems, you're going to need to solve those first. You need to make space.

You need to stabilise your platforms. You need to put out the fires. Depending on the fires, this could be a migration to public cloud to solve infrastructure issues, fixing some major bugs in your software and integrations, or building (or buying) a better IT operations practice. Whatever is causing the fires and pain – put your attention on it, solve it, and make space.

When those fires are out, you can breathe more slowly. And spend time on innovation.

Because you can't innovate while your house is on fire.