“We never have time to do things properly, but we always find time to do them again once they’ve gone wrong.”
Working in leadership development, I am continuously engaged with managers who appear to have absorbed a franticly hurried and solution-driven approach to every problem or challenge they encounter at work. It’s as if when confronted with a problem they must act, be seen to be acting, and above all act now. This is both understandable – given the organisational cultures in which many seek to survive and thrive – and appropriate in some cases, perhaps with relatively simple issues. It also ties in with widely held beliefs about what it means to lead – beliefs around expertise, action, knowing the answers, being decisive and so on.
I would like to illustrate with a few dramatic examples, how the opposite perspective makes a crucial contribution to effective leadership practice, a more thoughtful and nuanced approach to the challenges leaders face. This is not about moving from ‘busy fool’ to inertia and prevarication, nor is it about endless committees and elaborate consultation processes. It’s about making mature and thoughtful choices, with colleagues, about how to approach difficult or complex situations, and the value of focused and appropriate deliberation in action.
The first example comes from the way in which fire-fighting services in the USA tackle complex and dangerous fires, a challenge which plunges leaders regularly into the most unpredictable and changing situations, and one which requires rapid decision-making and focused action. Paul Gleason is acknowledged as one of the best wildland fire-fighters in the world, and his take on leading in these situations has led to the service employing a simple protocol that fire chiefs use to develop direction for crews in the middle of a fire-fight. In general terms it involves many conversations with teams and leaders during the fire, along the lines of…..
Here’s what I think we face
Here’s what I think we should do, and why
Here’s what we should keep our eye on
Now talk to me ….
Tell me if you do not understand, or cannot do it?
What are you thinking that I may have missed?
Tell me if you see something that I do not?
The focus here is on accessing the perspectives and observations of all of the fire-fighters about what it is they are dealing with. It is crucial to take time and value this process, even in the midst of a fire, since to not do so leads to poor decisions based on the limited information leaders would otherwise use to make decisions. Failure to access this ‘intelligence’, and adapt to changing circumstances means that people die.
What happens next emerges from each conversation, but it is not a plan or strategy for the whole job. Gleason prefers to see his leadership efforts as a continuous process of sense-making, rather than decision-making. This gives his crew a direction for some short period which is dynamic, open to revision at any time, responsive, self-correcting and with more of its rationale being transparent to all.
In his words “If I make a decision it is a possession, I take pride in it, I tend to defend it and not listen to those who question it. If I ‘make-sense’ then this is more dynamic and I listen and I can change it”. He is attempting to keep things fluid, to allow new meaning, challenge and reinterpretation, to improvise with expertise and awareness in public, with others. If Paul Gleason can value these open processes of engagement in the midst of a real ‘fire-fighting’ situation – perhaps they have something helpful to say in less precious or demanding ones in other workplaces?
Philosopher Otto Neurath has a nice reminder for us –
“Shipwrecks are caused by people who know exactly where they are”
Another dramatic example from the UK also challenges the street wisdom that demands action now if we are facing a problem. This is the Buncefield Oil Storage Facility fire in Hertfordshire one Sunday morning in December 2005. The demand for action in such a crisis was evident almost from the start. The large plume of smoke was visible from satellite and on the continent, and was shown widely on 24hr TV channels. The Fire service was under very real pressure from the media and politicians to “just put the fire out, now”.
What the Fire and other services faced, however, was a blaze some ten times more serious than any they had rehearsed or planned to deal with, and one in which it was not clear how to safely bring it under control. Faced with a real problem outside of their experience, they wisely chose to contain the situation as best they could, and not rush to action until they understood what they faced and the consequences of the options available to them. This involved accessing worldwide expertise, (environmental and health as well as fire fighting) and getting specialist equipment from across the country. Not until the following day were they in a position to put the fire out. It transpired that this approach to understanding the problem first, saved the water supply for this area North of London from the long-term contamination that would have resulted from immediate ‘action’.
Knowing how we add value by stopping to think carefully and engage with our colleagues is a crucial feature of leadership, and much easier to achieve in less dramatic circumstances. Relying solely on our own experience and our potential misreading of new situations may appear to be decisive, but may be a case of speed more than quality.
Lastly, a wonderful study of decision-making in large organisations has been published recently by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe (ref below). It’s a fascinating read for those who enjoy politics, but the study itself is not party political, it’s about how poor decisions arise from less effective processes, particularly the lack of purposeful deliberation prior to action.
Their work recognises many familiar organisational weaknesses, such as groupthink, failure to speak truth to power, cultural and operational disconnect etc., but the most relevant here is the distinct lack of deliberation in many of the government’s worst blunders over the past twenty years or so (the Poll Tax, Individual Learning Accounts, ERM, CSA and many others). What they have observed is the lack of a willingness to take time to carefully consider the options, without rushing to conclusions, and to be resolute in seeking out the widest range of views and expert perspectives, including those from people who will be most impacted by decisions being taken.
Taking just a little time to think, ask questions and explore our understanding with others can lead, as in the examples above, to better outcomes and less error. But there’s much more value in this approach than solving a problem well this time around. As Gleason was well aware, this sense-making with colleagues gives us better and more current information about the issues we are dealing with, and crucially builds commitment and engagement for the long term. It’s also a recognition that no matter how experienced and passionate managers may be they will only have a limited perspective on any issue they have to deal with, and as Gleason said – “You can’t be threatened by people wanting to know – you’re a leader not a wizard!”
These ideas echo some of the more recent understandings of ‘leadership’ which focus on a leader’s role as meaning maker / interpreter / sense-maker particularly in changing and troubled times.
“Puzzles in organisational learning: An exercise in disciplined imagination” Karl Weick, British Journal of Management, Vol13, S7-S15 (2002)
“The Blunders of our Government” Anthony King and Ivor Crewe (2013)
George Bernard Shaw
“For every complex problem there is a simple solution that is wrong”