Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Too Much of a Good Thing

The wildland fire service has been deemed by many a high reliability organization (HRO). For those less familiar with HROs or those wanting to share the information with new members of the organization has a great article called "Characteristics of the High Reliability Organization - How Does Your Organization Measure Up?"

Karl Weick and Kathleen Sutcliffe suggest that high reliability organizations (HROs) share the following characteristics:

  • Preoccupation with failure
  • Reluctance to over simplify
  • Sensitivity to operations
  • Deference to expertise
  • Commitment to resilience

"Deference to expertise is the focus of this blog with information taken from Managing the Unexpected by Weick and Sutcliffe as cited in a Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center's HRO Stories article titled "Morning Briefings: Boring or Effective? How Our Conversations at Briefings Can Reinforce Deference to Expertise."

“Deference to expertise pushes decision-making to the field level, migrating decisions both up and down, reducing the consequences of errors in decision-making. Decisions migrate around HROs in search of a person who has specific knowledge of the event. Deference to expertise is as much collective as it is individual.”

“Expertise is relational. It is an assemblage of knowledge, experience, learning and intuitions that is seldom embodied in a single individual. And if expertise appears to be confined to a single individual, that expertise is evoked and becomes meaningful only when a second person requests it, defers to it, modifies it or rejects it.” They also write, “Expertise resides as much in
relationships as in individuals, meaning that interrelationships, interactions, conversations and networks embody it.”

A Word of Caution

Ron Ashkenas wrote an article called "The Dangers of Deference" for the HBR Blog Network. Although this article talks about "deference to authority" where subordinates defer to hierarchical authority. I found the word of caution that Ashkenas provides about overly deferential cultures useful. Ashkenas says, "There's nothing wrong with a certain amount of deference in organizations. But when a culture becomes overly deferential, it can lead to frustration, resentment, and bad decisions."


Monday, July 25, 2011

"Teaming" is "Winning"

A true success of the NWCG Leadership Subcommittee (LSC)is the use of our support cadre--also referred to as our "eyes forward" cadre. Randy Skelton, Dupty Fire Staff on the Payette National Forest, is the LSC's Support Cadre Coordinator. These men and women come together to complete a task or project and then disband when finished. This grassroots effort has proven quite effective for the program.

Recently, Karl Moore, Forbes magazine contributor and professor at McGill and Oxford Universities, interviewed Amy Edmondson, Harvard Business School, regarding the death of teams.

Edmondson believes that teams are being replaced effectively by "teaming." To Edmondson, "teaming is a verb, teaming is a skill, teaming is an activity." "Teaming" is the LSC's support cadre.

In "HBS's Amy Edmondson on the Death of Teams," Moore and Edmondson discuss how organizations and employees may have to adapt to adapt to embrace the "teaming" way of doing business.

Here are some interview highlights from Edmondson:

  • We're going to have to get better at learning how to quickly relate to people we don't know; learning how to trust them, learning how to share our knowledge, extract their knowledge, synthesize it, even though we come from very different backgrounds, different expertise areas and so forth.

  • Trust must be built quickly.

  • Team building will be conducted in the context of doing the work itself.

If you are unable to access the YouTube video, the interview transcript is available in Forbes' online article "HBS's Amy Edmondson on the Death of Teams.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Remembering Cramer

Photo credit: wildland

Today marks the eight-year anniversary of the tragic burnover on the Cramer Fire which took the lives of Shane Heath and Jeff Allen, helitack crewmembers from the Salmon-Challis National Forest.

We pause for a moment to remember these young men and fellow firefigthers and to reflect upon lessons learned from this tragedy.

As always, be safe.


Wednesday, July 20, 2011

"Can You Hear Me Now?"

"Can You Hear Me Now?" was a Verizon Wireless slogan for many years. The slogan's application to leadership development, however, lives on forever. Listening properly is one of the most important skills a good manager can master. How attentive are you when dealing with your staff or crew?

In 1999, Gregory L. Rynders, Battalion Chief for the Sandy Fire Department, wrote a very informative research paper called "Listening and Leadership: A Study on their Relationship" as part of his Executive Fire Officer Program. I suggest that you read Rynders' paper as a review of listening fundamentals and consider conducting similar research on your organization.

Rynders showcases the following listening rules from Hunsaker and Alessandra (1986):

  1. Remember that it is impossible to listen and talk at the same time. This most basic rule is broken most often.

  2. Listen for the speakers main ideas. Specific facts are only important as they pertain to the main theme.

  3. Be sensitive to your emotional deaf spots. Deaf spots are words that make your mind wander or go off on a mental tangent.

  4. Fight off distractions. Train yourself to listen carefully to your employee’s words, despite external distractions.

  5. Try not to get angry. Emotions of any kind hinders the listening process, but anger in particular is detrimental to message reception.

  6. Do not trust to memory certain data that may be important. Take notes.

  7. Let your employees tell their own stories first. When employees explain their situations, they may reveal interesting facts and valuable clues to help satisfy their needs.

  8. Empathize with your employees. Make a determined effort to see their point of view.

  9. Withhold judgment. Judge the value of the message, not the speaker’s delivery ability.

  10. React to the message, not the person. Don’t allow your mental impression of the speaker to influence your interpretation of his message.

  11. Try to appreciate the emotion behind the speaker’s words (vocal and emotional)more than the literal meaning of the words.

  12. Use feedback. Constantly try to check your understanding of what you hear.

  13. Listen selectively. Very often in conservation, your employee will tell you things that will help you identify his problems, needs, goals, or objectives.

  14. Relax. When another person is speaking to you, try to put her at ease by creating a relaxed, accepting environment.

  15. Try not to be critical, either mentally or verbally, of someone else’s point of view, even if it is different from your own. Hold your temper and your emotional feelings.

  16. Listen attentively. Face your employee straight on with uncrossed arms and legs; lean slightly forward. Establish good, gentle, intermittent eye contact.

  17. To the degree that it is in your power, try to create a positive listening environment.

  18. Ask questions. Ask open-ended, feeling-finding questions to allow your employee to express her feelings and thoughts.

  19. Be motivated listener. Without the proper attitude, all the foregoing suggestions for effective listening are for naught.


Monday, July 18, 2011

Trouble with Transitions

In the fall of 2010, I had the opportunity to take a graduate course in instructional and workplace performance. I quickly learned that one of the most vulnerable spots in productivity is the transition point. Yhe likelihood for error increases during transition.

According to Peter Bregman in his HBR blog post titled “The Secret to Ensuring Follow-Through,” poor communication is a major contributing factor. Bregman supports the use of checklists to improve communication. Checklists, an integral component in wildland fire, have their proponents and critics; but few can deny that checklists provide a consistent operating mechanism.

Bregman’s checklist includes the items listed below. You checklist may be different in order to focus on your specific transition trouble spots.

  • What do you understand the priorities to be?
  • What concerns or ideas do you have that have not already been mentioned?
  • What are your key next steps, and by when do you plan to accomplish them?
  • What do you need from me in order to be successful?
  • Are there any key contingencies we should plan for now?
  • When will we next check-in on progress/issues?
  • Who else needs to know our plans, and how will we communicate them?

An excellent resource cited by Bregman is a January 2010 podcast interview with HBR by Dr. Atul Gawande, author of The Checklist Manifesto, titled “Using Checklists to Prevent Failure.” I highly suggest that wildland firefighters listen to Gawande’s podcast interview

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Rest in Peace, Caleb

Today we lay to rest Bonneville Hotshot crewmember Caleb Hamm who lost his life in the line of duty in Texas on July 14, 2011. Our condolences go out to Caleb's family, crew, and friends.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Do You Believe in MAGIC?

If you are like me you’ve sat through training sessions and presentations where “death by PowerPoint” did little for the educational experience. Leaders who can share purposeful stories are invaluable. The power of storytelling is a tool that can help leaders convey information.

Jeremy Bennett provided a great blog post recently about students of fire such as Paul Gleason who developed storytelling into an art—an art that had huge impacts on those around them.

In an interview with Knowledge@Wharton, Peter Guber talks about the power of storytelling and provides great insight about its use as a leadership tool. Feel free to read the interview transcript or listen to the audio.

Storytelling is MAGIC

Guber believes that stories should have MAGIC.

M – You have to motivate.
A – Try to engage your audience emotionally, not intellectually.
G – All storytelling narrative is goal oriented.
I – All storytelling is interactive.
C – You have to have good content.

Helpful Hints

  • Storytelling is a tool that is used purposefully.
  • Practice pays off.
  • Move people’s hearts and emotions before you move their feet or their tongue.
  • Stories are often shared, often virally.

Word of Caution

A good story often “spreads like wildfire.” Therefore, storytellers must surrender control. Lt. Col. Eric Carlson shared the following quotes from Paul Tillich during the 2011 Gettysburg Staff Ride:

  • All history is remembered history.
  • The meaning of history lies beyond history.
  • There are two periods in history: one of preparation and one of expectation.

Tell your story with purposeful narrative and allow it to grow and impact your listeners. You may not affect everyone and the story may change from storyteller to storyteller, but most stories live on, relatively intact, long after the storyteller has gone on, impacting future generations through belief.

Additional storytelling references:

  • Denning. Stephen. The Leader's Guide to Storytelling. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2005.
  • Stories from the Fireline, blog post from June 17, 2010

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Thirtymile Turns Ten

Today marks the 10 year anniversary of when 14 members of the Northwest Regular Crew #6, along with two civilians, were entrapped by the flames of the Thirtymile Fire in the Chewuch River Canyon on the Okanogan/Wenatchee National Forest in Washington state. Four of those entrapped lost their lives in the line of duty. We remember Tom Craven, Devin Weaver, Jessica Johnson, and Karen Fitzpatrick.

Take a moment to review the incident and observe lessons learned from this tragedy.

Thirtymile Fire Resources:

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Remembering South Canyon

Today marks 17 years since 14 wildland firefighters lost their lives on Storm King mountain during the South Canyon fire near Glenwood Springs, Colorado.

Here are a few references you may want to share with your teams:

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

To Infinity and Beyond or Bust?

If you are a space junkie like me, you are well aware that the final space shuttle mission is scheduled for launch Friday, July 8, 2011. So what is next for the space program?

This morning I clicked on a article tickler titled "I've Never Seen NASA So Screwed Up" which linked to The Washington Post article "Final NASA Shuttle Mission Clouded by Rancor." The article debated whether or not NASA has clear vision--something many organizations experience during times of change and uncertainty.

This article fits nicely with my current work on an installment for the Leadership in Cinema program showcasing NASA and a breakdown in their safety culture. The PBS documentary Space Shuttle Disaster indicated that a lack of clear vision and trust were definite problems at NASA.

Read the article and watch the video and then consider your leadership and organization compared with NASA. Contemplate the following questions adapted from "Command Philosophy" in the Leading in the Wildland Fire Service.

  • Do you have a clear vision?
  • Have you translated that vision into clear leader's intent?
  • Do subordinate leaders who are at the scene of action understand the current situation better than does a senior commander some distance removed?
  • As a fire leader, do you continually work to achieve coordination and cooperation among all forces toward a commonly understood objective?
  • Do you subscribe to unity of effort?
  • Do you avoid mixed messages or countermanding directives?
  • Do you work together across jurisdictional lines to find common ground and act in the best interest of those responding to the incident, the public, and our natural resources?
  • Do you employ multiple leadership skills to influence decisions, forge effective relationships, facilitate cooperative efforts, and ensure that objectives are achieved?

Monday, July 4, 2011

Happy Fourth of July

On behalf of the NWCG Leadership Subcommittee, happy Fourth of July.

A very special thank you to all those wildland firefighters who are diligently working this holiday.