The Season of the Firehose (Part 1): Fostering Innovation When Life is Too Full

Lately, I’ve been struggling to fit my life into my life; there’s too much of it, and too little of me. You know the feeling. Your To Do List is bursting at the seams, and for each entry you’ve managed to check off, you’ve added three more. You’ve put your own world on hold repeatedly for everyone else’s, and stolen time from every other role and relationship you have. Some time ago, you passed the point of being able to improve your situation by managing better and working harder, and now you’re exhausted along with the hours in your day and your go-to strategies for taming your To Do List. It’s like drinking from a fire hose and you stopped being thirsty a long time ago. I call this chaotic and overwhelming experience, the Season of the Fire Hose.

I know it sounds extreme when it’s written on a page like this, but I bet it sounds familiar and you felt your pulse quicken or your shoulders tighten as you read it. The Season of the Firehose is a natural consequence of elevated aspirations and authority, so the only way to be free from it (short of winning the lottery and becoming a hermit) is to try to be, and to do, very little. As appealing as that might sound when you’re overwhelmed, for most leaders, it’s about as feasible as the hermit gig. For leaders of creatives, the Season of the Fire Hose is especially threatening because kindling and keeping your team’s fire burning is hard to do when the fire hose is trying to put it out.

In the Season of the Fire Hose, life is too full, and the fire in people diminishes because they don’t have room to breathe. They find themselves gasping for air in the wash of everything they have to do and they’re desperately in need of something called “margin”.

Margin & Innovation

Margin is the space between a person’s total capacity and the amount of it that is being used at a given moment. It’s the unused portion of the whole that lets everything else breathe. On a printed page, the empty space at the edges, between paragraphs, and around pictures helps you as the reader organize, prioritize, and pace the content. Without it, you’d be overwhelmed and have trouble making sense of it all. In a life, the empty or unprogrammed moments in your day or your week do the same thing. They give you the room you need to reflect, recharge, or make sense of everything else your busy life contains. Without them, it’s easy to find yourself moving grimly from one thing to the next with no real sense of the whole. This leftover space in your schedule, your thoughts, or your emotional capacity is your margin. It’s like oxygen that lets you breathe and be rejuvenated in the midst of the barrage and it’s also crucial to you and your team’s innovation.

When your people’s time and attention are oversubscribed, their margin disappears and their perspective changes in ways that specifically sabotage innovation. They might look busy, but they shift from imagining the best possibilities and greatest outcomes to merely trying to make it through the day. Quietly, the pressure of immediate things supplants any thought about future ones, and team members become less interested in what they hope to accomplish even as they become preoccupied with what they are required to do. Their imagination sputters under the tyranny of their To Do lists, and their vision gets bogged down in the minutia of the moment. This is poison to a creative team, and it kills your calls for innovation not by directly confronting or refuting them, but by simply overwhelming and eclipsing them. 

Marginless people aren’t able to make the unusual connections that constitute creative thought and their busyness produces only derivative and uninspired results. They feel too busy to risk wild goose chases or mental forays that might not pan out. So, they worry too much about efficiency. Instead of imagining new futures or exploring unexpected routes to them, they try to map the shortest path between two points. Unfortunately, dreaming is a notoriously inefficient endeavor and these well-worn paths lead only to equally worn destinations. If your team’s well of imagination is running dry and innovation is slowing down, it doesn’t need more meetings and management; it needs more margin. Stop the pep talks and inspiring speeches, and start making space in the schedule to keep it burning bright.

[For more on Managing Margin and keeping your team burning bright, check out my latest book, Fired Up! Kindling and Keeping the Spark in Creative Teams.}