Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Management lessons taken from fighting forest fires

I heard this morning that even the soggy states of the Upper Northwest are getting dry and fires are popping up.

Johns Hopkins researchers published a story in the J of Contingencies and Crisis Management on how fire fighting can build competent managers.

Kathleen Sutcliffe, the lead investigator, describes the process this way.

First, frontline workers in dynamic, unpredictable circumstances, must constantly assess conditions and look for anomalies. These are little shifts and blips signaling trouble ahead.

Leaders of the group must help workers hang onto these details and make sense of them.

In a stable situation, getting information is a challenge. In a complex, uncertain one--too much information is the problem. And it's ambiguous.

What they are talking about is a group of people "constructing" the meaning of a situation.

Say a frontline fire fighter saw smoke in the distance. If he said nothing, it did not enter the process. If he does mention it, it requires a response from the boss and other members of the organization--and it could be another fire that would have taken over the first crew.

Another example of an anomoly was the O-rings on the ill-fated Challenger, No one broke the momentum of the flight by getting into it.

In crises, errors are not so much mistakes in execution as they are errors in perception, in evaluating.

One fire fighter told the researchers that as experienced as he was with large fires, he came to each one thinking he knew nothing about it. He built up his knowledge.

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