Karl Weich, expert in Organizational Studies from Michigan University, has written several articles and publications that offer a new view on organizations. In one of his articles, he analyses the tragedy that caused the death of 13 firemen who were fighting a forest fire. This is what happened:
On August 5, 1949, the authorities of the Montana Fire Department received a call informing a fire outbreak in a Mann Gulch forest. The place was mountainous and quite inaccessible. A team of parachute firemen, who barely knew one another, was called. One of them had vast experience in these sort of fires; he was appointed leader. The group lacked the necessary trust that would help for cohesion and teamwork.
The information given to the firemen said that this was a routine task: the fire wasn’t serious and, by following the procedures they knew, they would be able to extinguish the fire in a few hours. When they reached the affected area they scattered; each man started to perform the job he had to do with the information available at that time. Slowly, the situation began to change and they realized that the fire was headed directly at them. It was out of control. The smoke was thick, the temperature too high and the noise so loud that they couldn’t hear themselves. The flames advanced.
The leader tried to gather the team and after igniting an area of the forest intentionally, he ordered everyone to drop their tools and lie down on the ground consumed by the fire he had caused.
Upon such change of strategy and in face of a situation they knew little about, no one obeyed. The firemen tried to save themselves as they could. Two of them hid inside a crack in between rocks and were saved. The leader, within his circle of ashes, survived as well. The rest of the firemen died in the fire.
Much has been studied from the point of view of organizations in order to understand why such a huge disaster took place and the reasons why nobody followed the leader.
Weick analyses the case and provides some reasons for the magnitude of this disaster. The firemen thought it was a typical fire and organized themselves to do what they were used to doing, individually. They all thought they were doing the right thing. The leader’s behavior seemed absurd. Fight fire with another fire? The fact is that fire goes after fuel to continue advancing and consuming everything it can and, if there is an area that is already consumed, then that’s a good place where to lie down and wait for the fire to take another way. The leader had an excellent idea.
As Weick explains, this case shows that it is difficult to foresee when facing such a critical change. When the firemen heard the order to drop their tools, they were no longer prepared professionals who were part of an ad hoc team; they became victims who tried to save their lives. Almost none of them had the necessary creativity and capacity to manage change upon an unexpected scenario.
The leader was the only individual capable of gathering the preexisting information to design a good strategy of change, but he didn’t have the firemen’s respect or trust to follow his improvised plan. Had the firemen obeyed the order, they would have saved themselves.
What can organizations learn from this catastrophe? How to awake creativity and change management when facing this sort of crisis?
Karl Weick suggest some solutions that can be easily implemented through training in change management and creativity within organizations. The author says that it is important to:
- Be alert to possible changes when interacting with the environment (although they may not appear to be significant).
- Understand that change comprises uncertainty and risk, but it can potentially generate innovation and improvements.
- Focus on the “here and now”, avoiding routine thinking. What saved us in the past doesn’t have to be necessarily good in the present.
- Know what your immediately available resources are in advance.
- Build a team where people know each other and, above all, understand your leader.
- Keep your mind open to modify routines and learn from what takes place in the present.
- Recognize, respect and manage emotions caused by crisis.
- Build a culture that accepts and embraces change and that understands creativity as a necessary tool to face new dilemmas.
Success in change management also involves the team’s belief in its leader and following him or her –which didn’t happen at Mann Gulch because it was an ad hoc team. The leader must gain support from the members of the group. Most change initiatives do not progress because people’s problems are not taken into account. Change in an organization, as well as individual change, requires an adjustment, adaptation and, therefore, we must let go of old habits and acquire new ones. For an organization to be prepared to face whatever happens, it is important to create a culture that accepts change, creativity and that believes in the leadership of its management teams.
There are interesting coaching courses, simulations and processes in the market for collaborating with this process. However, one must see that they involve not only the “hard” aspects of processes, but also the “soft” ones, since an individual’s ability to manage change is correlated to a good orientation of reality, his or her ego’s control and certain self-control. Rigidity is often the response of a mind with low self-confidence to face new situations. Self-esteem and self-control should be considered the base of the ability to respond to change without an inadequate attachment to the past. The possibility to persuade, attract, motivate and align teams is as important along the road as having a good 9 or 10-phase procedure project.