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Coping with Unpredictable Situations

What organizations can learn from firefighters battling wildfires

by Patrick Ercolano-Johns Hopkins University News Office
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wildfire fightersPhoto courtesy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture via Wikimedia CommonsAs continued drought and unusually high temperatures raise alarm over the severity of this year's wildfire season in the Western United States, a Johns Hopkins University researcher's study of wildland firefighting has uncovered lessons in performing under uncertainty that should benefit workers in a variety of contexts.

Writing in the June 2015 issue of the Journal of Contingencies and Crisis ManagementKathleen Sutcliffe, a Bloomberg Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins, and her co-authors noted high performance in firefighting organizations that followed a two-phase process of "anomalizing" and "proactive leader sensemaking."

The process—which can be useful whether the setting is a blazing forest or a steel-and-glass corporate tower—works this way: Frontline workers in dynamic, unpredictable situations must constantly assess conditions and watch especially for anomalies, the little shifts and blips that suggest unexpected trouble might lie ahead. Leaders or supervisors act to help frontline workers hang on to those small details and make sense of them in order to tailor appropriate responses and actions.

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When executed well, says Sutcliffe, this two-pronged approach becomes the hallmark of an effective and highly reliable organization.

"In a simple, stable environment, the challenge is getting information," she says. "But in a complex, uncertain environment, as in a wildfire or any organizational crisis, the challenge is that a lot of information is coming at you, but it's ambiguous. There are multiple ways to interpret what's going on. So the people observing these cues and the people who might have a better understanding of what they mean have to work together to make sense of them and figure out what to do next."

By highlighting the fine points of the interplay of frontline anomalizing and managerial sensemaking, this paper helps advance the literature in the field of organization studies, says Sutcliffe, whose co-authors are Michelle Barton, an assistant professor at Boston University; Timothy Vogus, an associate professor at Vanderbilt University; and doctoral student Theodore DeWitt of the University of Michigan.

"We're calling special attention to the importance of perception, conception, and understanding in uncertain contexts," Sutcliffe says. "This goes beyond merely gathering pieces of information; it's actually more of a social construction, an active process in which a diverse group of people actively construct the meaning of a particular situation."

From the world of wildfire fighting, Sutcliffe relates the example of a frontline firefighter who reported seeing smoke in the distance. Previously, other crew members had noticed this anomaly but neglected to say anything about it. After the first firefighter mentioned his observation, it became what Sutcliffe calls an "artifact" that demanded a response from the boss and other organizational members. Further probing showed that the far-off line of smoke was the harbinger of a fire that might have overtaken the crew if it had not been brought to the attention of supervisors in time.

A well-known and tragic example of an unheeded anomaly occurred in the mid-1980s when pre-flight problems with the O-rings on the doomed space shuttle Challenger were ignored. The failure of the O-rings at launch set off a series of events that let to the shuttle breaking up in midair.

"This is a common type of occurrence in organizations, sometimes known as 'normalizing deviance,'" Sutcliffe says. "That is, anomalies aren't addressed; they're ignored or swept under the rug and become taken for granted in the process. As our findings show, it's often a good idea to interrupt the momentum, to step back when you notice that something seems wrong and say, 'Wait, is this still making sense?' It's easy to just plow ahead and stay in your comfort zone, but at times you need to break the momentum and try to gauge where things are heading."

Wildland firefighters sometimes seek a momentum break by moving to higher ground. This gives them a different perspective on how a fire is moving. What would be the equivalent in a traditional office setting? Bring dissimilar types of people into your organization, Sutcliffe says, encourage them to speak up, and listen closely to their ideas and opinions.

"In crises, the problems aren't so much errors of execution as they are errors of perception, conception, and understanding. People fail to look carefully at all the details that emerge, fail to plausibly categorize them, and fail to understand what they might imply," Sutcliffe says. "One of my favorite comments from our interviews with the firefighters came from one who told us, 'As old as I am and as experienced as I am in relationship to these large fires, the next fire I walk into initially, I won't know anything. So I'm not going to come in there full guns blazing at the get-go.' That kind of attentiveness really increases your chances of success whenever you find yourself in an uncertain situation."