Business Management

Firebreak approach to IT teamwork lights up change

CTOs and CIOs regularly express how difficult it is to find time to think and to experiment with new ideas. That challenge is not the sole preserve of the senior members of the business technology team. The majority of you will be well aware that your teams are at maximum capacity and therefore also lack creative thinking space.  

The truth is that this scenario is unlikely to change soon or even in the medium term. Accepting that and not finding a way to challenge the status quo though is not part of business technology leadership; a way has to be found. One such method is dubbed Firebreak and has been put into practice by the UK’s Government Digital Service (GDS) and more recently, as I was witness to, in healthcare. 

Firebreak steals its name, and a degree of thinking, from the world of emergency services. A firebreak accepts that the fire is burning and will continue to do so, but can be contained. As an editor in Australia in my youth I saw the system effectively used to prevent bush fires spreading and endangering lives by creating a clearing that the fire cannot cross. There is a line in the sand if you will and beyond the firebreak is a free space of safety that is secure from the conflagration allowing another form of ignition to take place - creativity. 

In real terms today, a firebreak enables a business technology leader and their organisation to say to teams: you have our full backing to not do your day to day job, but to instead spark up some new ideas, to experiment with new methods. The Firebreak event I had the privilege of taking part in gave team members a few weeks to develop a plethora of new ideas. In that time the staff challenged the business process, the products and methods for delivering those products and experimented with the latest technologies, including Amazon Alexa and Echo. 

Advisory organisations like the Leading Edge Forum (LEF) rightly suggest that organisations develop an approach that enables increased outside influence on the business. A firebreak is not a perfect example of outside influences, but one of the greatest channels to outside influence you have as a business technology leader is your team. A team has a far reaching set of insights and influences on life, technology and methods beyond the walls of your organisation. If the organisation has done a good job of recruitment and has a diverse and engaged workforce then those influences have the potential to see every paradigm. 

A firebreak requires team members to share ideas and then to commit to choosing ideas and collaborating on developing those ideas to fruition. A series of task-oriented teams are formed as collections of individuals with a passion or a frustration and they collaborate because they all have an itch to scratch and they know that together they can develop a solution. I saw teams from two parts of the country come together, new friendships and partnerships formed, and an honesty pervade the organisation. 

Setting up a firebreak requires the organisation and the leadership to accept that there are no sacred cows and that requires bravery. But the result is worth it. A firebreak that creates solutions is more effective than smouldering discontent. 


Also read:
What’s a Chief Digital Officer?
For CIOs, something has to change



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Mark Chillingworth

Mark Chillingworth is a CIO and CTO journalist, ghost writer, moderator and advisor with over 11 years experience. From 2010 to 2016 he was Editor in Chief of the award-winning CIO UK. In 2011 he created the CIO 100, an annual transformation power list of the UK’s most influential CIOs and launched the UK’s first CIO Podcast in 2016.

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