Thursday, January 20, 2011

Sense of Urgency and Complacency Meet

by Mike DeGrosky
CEO of Guidance Group, Inc.

Over time, I have accepted what I consider an immutable fact; that leadership is all about change. The big brains in the field widely accept that the purpose of leadership is change seeking, change making, and that leaders provide the driving force behind necessary change. In the operating environment of wildland firefighters, we can apply that thinking in (at least) two ways.

First, engaging any fire (regardless of objective) is an attempt to bring about change – unsuppressed fire suppressed, missing ecological force, unprotected property protected, unbroken fuels converted to fireline….you get the idea. Fireline leaders bring about these changes by establishing and communicating clear direction, aligning the efforts of people with that direction, and motivating people to get work done while overcoming obstacles along the way. Another perspective on change in the operating environment of wildland firefighters is that new policy and an evolving operating environment demand that wildland fire agencies ask their people to change their individual roles and responsibilities, some dramatically.

Leadership and organizational change expert John Kotter describes eight errors organizations make that contribute to the failure of their change efforts. At the top of his list, Kotter includes failing to establish a great enough sense of urgency. In fact, Kotter titled a recent book on organizational change A Sense of Urgency. Kotter makes clear that, above all else, the ability to create a sufficient air of shared urgency lies at the heart of successful change efforts. In this way, successful organizational change requires combating complacency.

That second change scenario is on my mind today. New policies and an evolving operating environment are causing changes to the individual roles and responsibilities of firefighters. Some of those changes are drastic, and we are trying to reorient a wildland fire service with a long history of essentially fighting all fire. That is a big change and it worries people.

Firefighters are adapted to clear-cut responsibilities (fly, drive, walk or parachute to the fire and put it out). Now they find themselves working fires, or even parts of fires, managed (in non-emergency fashion) for resource benefit, cost containment, risk management, or some other objective requiring a less aggressive stance on their part. They may not even personally agree with the objective or the policy responsible for it.

Asking aggressive specialists to slow down and do less can present a leadership challenge, particularly if they are not on board with the change to begin with. The problem is that, even in occupations more mundane than firefighting, if people lose their sense of urgency, complacency is sure to follow. Unfortunately, complacency is the enemy of both change and of firefighter safety. In my world, the enemy of change and firefighter safety is the enemy of effective fireline leadership.

Anyone who has been around awhile knows that some firefighters fail to see themselves in harm’s way when they are not either engaged in active suppression or employing traditional tactics. To be sure, strategic management response may add to the challenge. However, this is not a new problem that just came along with strategic management response. Firefighters also fall into the complacency trap on prescribed fires, small fires, oddball divisions on big fires, and in mop-up. I cannot say why, but some firefighters treat anything requiring less than their full fire suppressing effort as a different kind of event, requiring less urgency, and less vigilance. Complacency sets in.

However, snags fall on managed fires and we have entrapped unassigned firefighters walking in to their camp. Besides, isn’t someone expecting results, even if the desired result is not completed fireline? My point is that the risks and responsibilities inherent to wildland fire remain, regardless of policy or management objective. Regardless of objective, a fire assignment is a fire assignment; with all the associated risks and responsibilities.

I think about an opportunity I had to be on the line with an NPS fire use module a few years back. I flew into their remote assignment as a surprise. Their helispot and spike camp was squared away; all members of the module were on the line and obviously had been for hours. As I walked the line I found everyone fully engaged in meaningful work, recording data and locating contingency line. Though fire behavior was minimal, everyone was wearing their PPE, and there was no sense that people were unconcerned about safety. After all, they were working a remote assignment a long way from anywhere, on steep and rocky terrain. There was no indication that people found their work unimportant, with chatter on the radio, and all module members focused on the data that the fire use management team expected from them. I got the impression of a disciplined unit and that the module leader expected results, even though they likely would not throw a shovelful of dirt that day. If anything, the module leader seemed a little intense.

At the heart of successful leadership lies the ability to create a sufficient air of shared urgency and the capacity to combat complacency. People who share a sense of urgency remain alert and responsive, act on the need for change, and focus their time and priorities on the tasks required by the change. To combat complacency and establish a sense of urgency requires leaders to act boldly and decisively, resolving to move the organization in some direction without hesitation.

Mike DeGrosksy is a regular contributor to the WFLDP blog. "The Guidance Group specializes in human factors and organizational assistance to fire service organizations. We provide our client organizations with a unique blend of real world fire management experience and skills that may not be available within the client organization."

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