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The Need for Midcourse Corrections

Firefighting techniques show how deliberate interruptions can improve the health of organizations.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

Overcoming Dysfunctional Momentum: Organizational Safety as a Social Achievement

Michelle A. Barton and Kathleen M. Sutcliffe

Human Relations, vol. 62, no. 9

Date Published: 
September 2009

Not all management learning comes from within the corporation. For instance, techniques for fighting wildfires can be used to teach organizations about safety, workflow, and avoiding operational breakdowns. The authors of this study interviewed people involved in fighting wildfires and asked what makes individuals or groups work effectively when faced with changing conditions, ongoing action, and safety concerns. They found that successful efforts almost always included a reevaluation of a course of action and a redirection of resources. Changes in direction took much more than merely the spotting of warning signs, such as a shift in the wind (or, in another context, a change in the market trends), according to the authors. Instead, someone had to voice his or her concerns about the implications of not acting on the warning signs, concerns that might represent a conflicting point of view among the group. The authors also note that the process of reevaluating and changing strategy is affected by two social factors: institutional pressure and individual self-interest. They conclude that rather than waiting for something to go wrong, business leaders, particularly those in high-risk industries such as health care and aviation, would be best served by interruptions that trigger reevaluations from varying perspectives.

Bottom Line:
A common deterrent to organizational safety and efficiency is the inability to reassess and change ongoing plans. This study uses firefighting techniques to suggest that deliberate interruptions are vital to ensuring operational success.

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