About 3,000 firefighters are bravely battling the raging wildfires in California. Many of them have worked 24-hour shifts to contain the blaze, which has spread over more than 101 square miles, according to the Associated Press.
To watch these firefighters in action is to feel humbled by their bravery--and to feel no small measure of guilt for casually using terms like crisis and putting out fires and scope creep in business contexts. Compared with these real fires, almost any corporate challenge is a cakewalk.
Which is why you should check out the fascinating research on firefighters published a few years ago by Michelle A. Barton and Kathleen M. Sutcliffe in the MIT Sloan Management Review. Barton, assistant professor of organizational behavior at the Boston University School of Management, and Sutcliffe, professor of management and organizations at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business, studied teams that fight wildfires. What they learned about how these teams think and operate can help you prevent complex or dynamic problems in your office from spiraling out of control.
How to Stop Dysfunctional Momentum
Firefighters routinely have to shift strategies midstream in the face of ungovernable, unpredictable forces.
This talent for midstream course-correction is something Barton and Sutcliffe label as the ability to recognize and thwart dysfunctional momentum. What is dysfunctional momentum, you ask? Here's how the professors define it: "When people continue to work toward an original goal without pausing to recalibrate or reexamine their processes, even in the face of cues that suggest they should change course."
In organizations, there are typically five sources of dysfunctional momentum. You'll recognize all of them as the reasons individuals and teams typically continue down a wayward path, even in the face of evidence that they're doing the wrong thing:
1. Action orientation. "Our culture values action and decisiveness," write the authors. "We get rewarded for making progress and getting things done." Sometimes the emphasis on action prevents executives from performing preliminary evaluations and heeding cautions.
2. Inflexible planning. "Planning often locks business organizations into courses of action, because the repercussions of going off-plan are so serious," Barton and Sutcliffe say.
3. The ripple effect. "The interdependencies of an organization's components often mean that small changes in one part of the system can affect multiple other parts," the authors write. If executives operate under the assumption that small changes will remain small, they may be surprised at how much--and quickly--the drama spreads.
4. Rationalization. This is when leaders find some rationale to ignore evidence that, if looked at clearly, would cause discomfort. "In her analysis of the 1986 Challenger disaster," say the authors, "sociologist Diane Vaughan noted the tendency to 'normalize' cues that space shuttle problems were arising."
5. Deference to perceived expertise. Employees on the frontlines--often with lower organizational ranks than the decision makers--sometimes "abdicate their own responsibility for monitoring situations and taking action to change them if necessary."
So, how do you halt disruptive momentum? In a phrase: Lose your tunnel vision. Never be so absorbed in a plan that you can't interrupt it to ask: "What's the story now? Is it the same story as before? If not, how has it changed? And how, if at all, should we change our actions?"
The challenge, in other words, is to be brave enough to speak up and question or interrupt the preexisting plan.
But interrupting is never easy, especially if the preexisting plan has the blessing of the organization's leaders. By observing teams of firefighters, Barton and Sutcliffe identified two cultural traits that can help anyone--leaders or employees on the frontlines--create the interruptions necessary for adjusting on the fly during a complex crisis.
Situated humility. This is when individuals are humble enough to acknowledge their own inability "to understand or predict the unfolding situation." One firefighter put it like this: "As old as I am and as experienced as I am in relation to these large fires, when I walk into the next fire I initially won't know anything. So I'm not going to come in there with guns blazing."
A culture that encourages interruptions. Foster an atmosphere in which employees--especially those on the frontlines, who often see the trouble before the higher-ups do--are unabashed about raising concerns and constructively questioning senior leaders.
In turn, those leaders need to practice making themselves available to interruptions, instead of dismissing them as distractions or the cries of detractors who are not fully "on board" with the preexisting plan.
Remember that in real life, real fires have been thwarted because of tips that junior firefighters gave their superiors--tips the superiors welcomed without hesitation.