Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Case for Punting

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
It is time for the Planning Meeting. It was a rough day. Fire behavior today was extreme. Record temperatures, Haines 6, all the usual “oh bleep” stuff. The entire perimeter was active and the east flank ran three miles. The crews pulled back after a hard fight. You lost miles of line and had two tough medevacs. You could sense the tension over the radio when the column built over Division Foxtrot. Oh yeah, there is still a 20,000 foot convection column visible from camp and blotting out the sun. It not only looks bad, it feels creepy. The cars are covered in ash. Tomorrow is forecasted to be worse. You step into the fully packed circus tent to present the plan for tomorrow. The entire team seems more fatigued than usual. That guy wearing a tie in the back row looks important (and upset). The Agency Administrator is stressed–the timber sale and range allotment are now inside that thick red line you drew on the map. Uncertainty and fear are the dominant emotions. All eyes are on you…This is a leadership moment! You step up front and proclaim; “Tomorrow we are going to punt!

*silence fills the tent*

Ok, so you may not say “punt” but metaphors are a great way to communicate. People will often understand metaphors better than a risk matrix. I choose punting because it is a commonly used way of creating margin in football. By punting we create margin. The scenario described above is lacking margin. The other side must have had our playbook. That’s fine, it happens. Two medevacs were two too many. Line lost is unnecessary exposure. It’s time for a conscious decision to increase our margin.

Increasing margin accepts and allows for the inevitable botched play (error) or big play (success). Margin anticipates error and success. It allows as much time and space possible to respond to changes. Margin gives us the ability to absorb error and to capitalize on success. It is using all of our tools to build resiliency and redundancy in the system. Margin recognizes when time and space is about to shove you into a box canyon and helps prevent it from occurring. Margin means you always have a good kicker on the bench; the option to punt before we try a 4th and long underneath the convection column. 

Why margin? We call the combined interaction between fuels, weather and topography “Fire in the third dimension.” Cool title–heavy stuff really. Who thinks three-dimensionally? Spock? Add the human element into the equation (opinions, emotion, biases, beliefs, etc.) and welcome to the fourth dimension of firefighting: fuel/weather/topography/people. Good luck with that one; it’s too many variables to consider. The complexity of the fourth dimension of firefighting will quickly outpace our cognitive ability. The biggest supercomputer would be unable to process all of the potential interactions and outcomes of a large complex fire with hundreds of people and Mother Nature running wild.
Concept of Margin
(Photo credit: USDA Forest Service Office of Learning)
No need to simplify it. You are not that good. None of us are that good. That is a lot of risk to “manage” and a good time to have an all-star kicker on the bench. It’s a good time to build margin and have options. Margin recognizes our humanity. So, a conversation about risk is a conversation about an uncertain future. The human mind does not like uncertainty. Uncertainty leads to stress. Stress often leads to fear. Fear may be the single biggest barrier to critical thinking. The folks in that tent may not be thinking critically. Engage them in critical thinking. It is when we are stressed and scared that we need margin the most. Don’t be afraid to call in the kicker. 

What about Risk and Probability?
Viewing risk through the probability/severity model has value. It is a good equation if we know all of the knowns and unknowns and have large amounts of accurate data AND we operate in a system capable of absorbing error. A casino survives by the probability model, it has probability in its favor–it will win most of the time so it can afford to lose occasionally. How much loss can we absorb with 500 firefighters on the line? 5,000 firefighters? How rare are those anomalies like plume domination and unforecasted weather events or someone reading the map incorrectly? They are not rare. They are the norm. Do we plan for the norm–for the lowboy to get jackknifed on the escape route? On the fireground, unknowns will appear and error will happen. Our current use of the probability model does not embrace error; it attempts to reduce, eliminate or at times, ignore it. Margin recognizes error. It plans for it. It expects it. Error = reality and it lives side by side with success.

Why margin? Because we suck at measuring and understanding probability. Walk into any casino. Buy a lottery ticket. Eat a candy bar. Turn the music up. Text while driving…all of these actions are based on emotion, not data. Data says they are all bad yet we do them anyway. Why, because it feels good. Humans are naturally optimistic. We are emotional critters, not computers. We suck at measuring and understanding probability because it is boring and it doesn’t always give us the answer we want. We all see ourselves as potential lottery winners. What if we saw ourselves as potential causalities?

Look at the difference in these two questions:
  1. What is the probability of success?
  2. How much margin do we have?
Which of the two questions has an assumption built in? Which of the two encourages dialogue and sensemaking? Which one triggers critical thinking? Our current risk model uses green, amber and red. Colors are cool. Simple is cool. Green = Go. Yellow = Go (with mitigations). Red = IC approval to Go. What is wrong with this model? Our business is too complex to settle for three colors to rationalize a decision.

Probability in our business is cradled in the hands of Mother Nature and the decision-making of the individual. We may have great maps, an accurate weather forecast and we may have analyzed the predicted rates of spread down to a fraction. But what if we looked at risk from the perspective of the stressed out, physically- and mentally-fatigued, color-blind decision maker operating in a complex environment (forest fire qualifies as a complex environment, don’t you think?). What if we planned for something unexpected to happen? We botch the handoff, the burnout is too hot. We fumbled on the two-yard line, the safety zone was labeled wrong on the map. What then would risk look like? What if we viewed risk as a metric for uncertainty rather than a measure of probability?

We would be discussing margin.
Remember that next time you are asked “What is the probability of success?” You may want to focus on margin. Or you can just punt.

About the author: Curtis Heaton works for the US Forest Service as a National Incident Management Organization Operations Section Chief and has been heavily involved with the Wildland Fire Leadership Development Program, including member of the L-580 Steering Committee.

We thank Curtis for putting himself out there and look forward to many more great posts. All expressions are those of the author.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very nicely written piece. I agree that we need to take the time to re-group - 'create margin' and plan our next steps rather than fighting fire by habit and doubling down on risk.