Machiavellian Fire Fighters

October 23, 2008

I have been obsessed with this parable since I stumbled upon it a few days ago.

In ancient China, there was a family of healers, one of whom was known throughout the land and employed as a physician to a great lord. The physician was asked which of his family was the most skillful healer. He replied, “I tend to the sick and dying with drastic and dramatic treatments, and on occasion someone is cured and my name gets out among the lords.

“My elder brother cures sickness when it just begins to take root, and his skills are known among the local peasants and neighbors.

“My eldest brother is able to sense the spirit of sickness and eradicate it before it takes form. His name is unknown outside our home.” LINK

The world is so much filled with mediocrity and fighting the mediocrity to create a better world that fire fighters are celebrated more than actual creators and value adders. The person who was most well known in the above parable is the fire fighter.

This behavior is from time immemorial. Every developer who has coded a module will be aware of fire fighting. Every project manager who has handled a slightly complex project will be aware of fire fighting. What is more surprising is that it is not just the complexity of code or project which substantiates the parable but every team consisting of more than four people promotes and celebrates fire fighters.

It is always better to add to problems or blow up the problem to unmanageable proportions and then get recognition for fire fighting than to nip it in the bud. Some beautiful examples were also discussed in Nassim Taleb's book 'Black Swan'. One of the examples quoted by Taleb is about the 9/11 event in the US. If 9/11 event could have been in some way predicted, it would have never got the publicity that it has enjoyed helping the politicians the misuse for their own personal benefits than to help the humanity and the economy.

The winner in today's corporate and social world is the person who can create the loudest noise about solving a problem than a person who can actually add benefit through better processes and care which will nip the problem in the budding stage itself! If you belong to the latter categories of elder brothers, find joy in your inner abilities and strengths and not in worldly recognition. 

Have you had some similar experiences?

Srikanth Thunga is a 2nd year business management graduate at XLRI School of Business & Human Resources. He has around 3 years of experience in IT product development in the instrumentation and supply chain domain. He has been on and off the blogging scene from 2003. He enjoys reading & writing about technology, science, economics, sociology and more! :)
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October 23, 2008
06:49 AM

Thats a nice parable, and I am going to use it.

Someone said 'Trouble with doing things right the first time is that no one notices it', and I used to have it on my desk all the time, till I was gainfully employed.

Ayan Roy
October 23, 2008
08:13 AM

I think most people have an emotional craving for last minute tension, pressure, drama, fear and excitement. That's why fire-fighting is appreciated so much!

Maybe 'fire-fighting' gets the best out of some people, who would not be emotionally charged up enough to do the little boring tasks correctly and on time; They have a "tension threshold level" below which they just cannot work!

It's like a batsman, who, batting in the last over of an ODI, with his team chasing and needing six runs to win, blocks five ordinary balls - and then hits the last ball for six!!

Unlike the boring guy who taps singles and twos and wins comfortably without any histronics.

Most of us do not possess the bloody minded discipline and are too lazy and callous to do the little things right at the right time.

"A stitch in time saves nine"
..This is such a true proverb..and it actually, literally, embarassingly, "rippingly" came true with one of my old tight pyjamas!!

October 23, 2008
02:16 PM

"where am i?" asked the weary traveler.
"you are in the west," replied mahajirzadeh
"west? i walked east," said the traveler.
"round is flat, the twain meet," said mahajirzadeh

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