Professor Michelle Barton on What Wildland Firefighters Can Teach Us about Crisis Management

in Faculty, Organizational Behavior
July 27th, 2011

Michelle Barton, Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior

Michelle Barton, Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior

Boston University School of Management Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior Michelle Barton’s recent research takes a unique approach to exploring crisis management.  Along with co-author Kathleen M. Sutcliffe, Barton analyzed teams of wildland fire fighters, gleaning clues about the leadership and group dynamics that can successfully disrupt a catastrophe – or fan its flames.

Barton and Sutcliffe’s article on their findings, “Learning When To Stop Momentum,” has recently been published in MIT Sloan Management Review.  Now, Barton takes a moment to discuss both this new study specifically and her ongoing fascination with how people organize to manage uncertain events as they unfold.

Q:  What was the most fundamental leadership lesson you learned from studying firefighting teams?

Sometimes firefighters become so engrossed in unfolding events that they fail to stop and absorb new cues into their understanding of what is happening.”

A: We looked at what we call “dysfunctional momentum” and how it deepens danger, both in the context of firefights and, by extension, in management crises. Dysfunctional momentum occurs when people continue on their planned path towards their original goal without stopping to reexamine their processes, even when clues arise that a new direction in needed.

This happens in part because humans tend to be efficient thinkers. Once we come up with a particular understanding, or story, of what’s happening (e.g., “This is a routine fire.”) we don’t spend time re-evaluating our initial assessment. We just go about our business, acting appropriately for that story. Most of the time, this is a reasonable way of comprehending and coping with our world. But when situations are uncertain and dynamic, the reality of a situation may be different or may change quickly from our original assessment.

In terms of wildland firefighters, we found that sometimes firefighters become so engrossed in unfolding events that they fail to stop and absorb new cues into their understanding of what is happening. As a result, problems escalate and crises can occur.  It became clear to us, from our data, that this dysfunctional momentum arises not from a failure to note or sense important signals, but from a failure to interpret and then incorporate important signals once they are sensed.

As we write in the article, in order to overcome dysfunctional momentum, we have to create interruptions, points at which we can 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 adjust our actions?”  This is what firefighters did who were successful at preventing certain wildland wildfires from spreading out of control.

Q: So applying this to leadership and team work in other kinds of organizations…

“In order to overcome dysfunctional momentum, we have to create interruptions, asking, ‘What’s the story now? How has it changed?’

A: The main takeaway for both team leaders and team members would be to cultivate what we call “situated humility,” and also, perhaps counter-intuitively, to actively seek out interruptions or disruptions to the narrative in their head about how a situation is supposed to unfold.

We define situated humility as acceptance that, however confident one is in one’s own abilities, a situation may be so dynamic and complex that no individual can be fully knowledgeable given the circumstances. Leaders who exhibit situated humility are more likely to seek out or create opportunities to question their assumptions and update their understanding of what is happening. As a leader, you can do this by looking for diverse perspectives on the situation, encouraging skepticism, and actively seeking out bad news. Leaders must also make themselves physically and socially available for feedback. And everyone, team leaders and team members alike, should actively voice concerns.  Thinking – and questioning – out loud is key. All of these practices create interruptions in the thought processes and trigger another opportunity to ask, “what’s the story now?”

Q: How did you come up with the idea of looking at firefighters to illuminate leadership and crisis dynamics in other organizations?

A: All of my research centers around how people organize to manage uncertain events as they are unfolding – so in addition to wildland firefighters, I’ve looked at nursing units, new product development efforts, and technology entrepreneurs.

“Leaders who exhibit situated humility are more likely to seek out or create opportunities to question their assumptions and update their understanding of what is happening.”

But my doctoral-program advisors at the University of Michigan (Karl Weick and Kathleen Sutcliffe) have both done some very interesting work in the context of wildland fire and suggested it might be an ideal context for my interests as well. They had worked with the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center, a group that acts as a knowledge resource center for the entire wildland fire community, including the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Parks Service and several other federal agencies. They are a wonderful community of people: deeply devoted to their work and intellectually curious. It was a great environment for field research.

Q: Are there any contemporary crises that leap to mind and that show this same dynamic of dysfunctional momentum?

A: Absolutely. There are many examples, from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, to the subprime lending crisis, to the BP Deepwater disaster.

“There are many reasons why crises occur. Dysfunctional momentum is just one more force acting upon them that we can consciously do something about.”

All of these were preceded by warnings and cues that all was not well, and yet people and organizations continued on without significantly reconsidering or reevaluating the assumptions behind their strategies. These were big crises and widely publicized, but this also happens day to day; Just think about the last time you were involved in a project that seemed to spiral out of control, and you found yourself wondering “how did I get here?”

This is all really much more about being human than being stupid, oblivious, or greedy. And the solutions we present in our article are not the only solutions to crises like these. There are of course many reasons why crises occur. Dysfunctional momentum is just one more force acting upon us that we can consciously do something about.

Read more about Barton’s work on this subject in the article, “Learning When To Stop Momentum,” MIT Sloan Management Review, April 1, 2010.