Thinking Beyond the Fires at Your Feet
Author: Billy Harbinson
June 29, 2022

I’ve been an innovation leader for more than a decade. I’ve been involved in massive, industry-changing successes and amazing, um, “learning opportunities.” One thing I’ve definitely learned is that success of any innovative endeavor depends on the leader’s ability to engage a mindset that lets them see beyond the fires that are burning at their feet today.


The Fire

A few years ago, I was in attendance at a Startup Demo Day. During one of the startup pitches, one of the event organizers texted a member of the C-suite from a Fortune 100 company and asked him to come into the pitch room. The exec showed up and politely listened as the startup made their pitch. As soon as the pitch was over, he said, “Very impressive stuff, but it doesn’t solve any of the problems that I have today.” He then listed out his 7-8 immediate concerns – the fires that were burning at his feet. The startup was in truth solving problems that would eliminate several of his pressing issues, but they were approaching it from a unique perspective. This C-suite executive couldn’t see beyond the fires at his feet. He left the room shortly thereafter to go fight those fires. A few months later, the startup signed a contract with the executive’s primary competitor.


But I’m Busy

We’re all busy, that’s just a fact in the modern working world. Our time and attention are divided among an endless to-do list filled with competing priorities. Executives and senior leaders are more susceptible to this fact due to the broad scope of their responsibilities. They are inundated with things that are burning right now – system outages, lagging performance numbers, and organizational politics, just to name a few. Innovative leadership requires that we see past these fires, which are often just symptoms of broader (solvable) systemic issues, and see the openings that can truly drive new opportunities and innovations. There is a profound opportunity cost to just solving for the fires.



There isn’t one magical way to see past the fires at your feet, but I can tell you how I’ve learned to approach it. It all starts with one simple question, which may be the single most repeated phrase of the last decade of my career: “What problem are we solving?” I use a deep toolbox of tools to explore the question “what problem are we solving” with leaders, but there are three that are used most often:


1. A conversation about question marks:

This doesn’t work with all leaders, but with some, it’s a great way to get started. I start the conversation exploring the fires that are burning but listen intently for the problems that haven’t fully formed in their mind. Once I hear a faint mention of something unformed, I steer the conversation in that direction. I intentionally call those “question marks,” and the leader will quickly pick up on the shorthand. We arrive at a short list of “question marks” that the leader hadn’t really starting thinking about yet, but were fundamental contributing factors to the fires.


2. The 5 Whys:

Ah, yes, the classic 5 Whys. It’s a tried-and-true method and I like to use tools that can produce actionable results.

“I want to run a POC.”


“Because I want to see if this solution works?”


“Because I don’t know if it’ll fix my problem.”


… and so on. This process will invariably produce new perspectives on the problem directly from the leader’s perspective. “I want to run a POC” quickly turns into “I don’t know how to get started.” That’s where the good stuff lives for innovation: “I don’t know how.”


3. Opportunity Exploration Workshops:

For broader, really complex problems, there are frameworks that have emerged in the last few years that can help a team examine many unique perspectives on the problem space. My team is finding great success in using these frameworks to align a group of leaders on the parts of a problem that are worth addressing (and just as important – the parts that are worth abandoning). It’s magic to watch one leader who thought the problem would wreck the company and another who didn’t consider the problem to be a problem at all come to a consensus on the parts of the problem that are worth tackling.

Brainstorming solutions is fun. Everybody grabs a pad of sticky notes and starts sharing ideas. Humans love to share ideas, and brainstorms are a great mix of idea sharing and the gratification that comes when others accept your ideas. Exploring the problem space is hard; it’s much less glamorous than solution brainstorming and doesn’t scratch the same itch. But it’s necessary if you want to build something new and innovative. Solving the right problem is more innovative than building an innovative solution to a problem that isn’t really a problem.

If you can first identify the fires that are occluding your vision, you can start to see beyond them and identify opportunities for real, sustainable innovation. So, dear reader, what problem are you solving today? What’s burning at your feet that you need to see beyond?

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