2016 Wildland Fire Leadership Development Program’s Reading Challenge: My Take

Yes To The Mess by Frank J. Barrett was the 2016 reader challenge presented by the Wildland Fire Leadership Development Program. Since 2016 was on it’s final leg, I ordered the book, waited for a month and half while Amazon seller “dirtbag99” forgot how to ship a book, and finally got down to reading.  I copied and pasted the questions posed, and responded accordingly.  Here is what I came up with.

Chapter 1: All That Jazz: The author talks about organizations needing “… a group of diverse specialists living in a chaotic, turbulent environment; making fast, irreversible decisions; highly interdependent on one another to interpret imperfect and incomplete information; dedicated to innovation and the creation of novelty.” How does this compare to your organization? Do you think this description fits wildland fire organizations? Why or why not? What types of innovative actions or behaviors have you seen or done in your job in wildland fire?

The approach Barrett refers to, which he says “The great Jazz players use” is contingent on the players honing their skills.  Our crew, and I can imagine most crews, are limited by the constraint of time.  We all have constraints, from my “limited duration” 1039, to the PSE’s.  This time constraint is exacerbated by the formalities of our bureaucratic tendencies.  To adhere to these unspoken tenants of our agency, we operate more from the perspective of the contradicting command-control style, wherein the hierarchy and chain of command and pay grades trump “most” crew members innovation or creativity.  This doesn’t mean it’s non-existent, just that we have, as an organization, decided not to reinvent the wheel.  To illustrate this is the concept of initiative vs command, or “orders”.

When someone assesses the circumstances and makes a decision, based on their previous experience or “honing of skills” they are taking a gamble.  They are weighing their ideas against the ideas of other crew members higher in the heiarchy.  It’s a risk – you risk reprimand, ridicule, etc.  This happens at all levels.  A squad members’ risk is with their squad leader and squad members, fellow squad leaders, assistants and supts. A squadees’ risk on the other hand, is with fellow sqaudee’s opinions, the Assistants and the Supt. etc, on up until the Supt.’s risk is with division, task force or whomever. The concept here though is informed risk.  While we often times operate under the guise of command-control, whenever we show initiative we are breaking that method, but only when the hierarchy says yes rather than views it as being an irrelevant  part of our job expectations or description.  We cease to be Jazz-like-wildland-firefighters when our initiatives and risk and failures are treated as negative actions.

Chapter 2: Yes to the Mess: Early in Chapter 2, the author talks about learning by doing. How does this concept fit into teaching and training programs in your organization? Is there room for learning by doing in a high risk environment? How about in a high reliability organization? How can you create opportunities for learning by doing without compromising safety or mission results within a program?

The concept of learning by doing in many ways pervades our organization.  To start each season we take crew hikes, do project work, simulate line digs and conduct navigation, radio, pump and medical exercises. Where I see this whole methodology fall short is where it relies to heavily on the Command-Control methodology.  By relying on the Command-Control methodology, our learning by doing is only possible through what overhead risks.  They often, operating under those time constraints discussed previously for chapter one, resort to the familiar and play the stuff everybody has already heard, knows it works ok, and continues doing it.  In essence they don’t risk.  Garret says that “only by taking risks can they expand action repertoires, replenish knowledge, and renew old skills.”

This conundrum exists because our job takes us into high risk environments.  Out of necessity to ensure crew productivity and safety while out on the line somewhere, we often find ourselves in the spring/early summer banging our heads agains the wall, listening to the same shit, doing the same shit, and basically just eating shit sandwiches for a month.  To put the jazz into our training without sacrificing safety or mission results, training needs to be considered learning, not training.  I borrowed this concept from David Marquet’s Turn This Ship Around, where he talks about how training is a passive thing, lacking engagement.  Learning draws on our curiosity for something new or different.  This looks like: not placing crew members in the same training roles, but rather, basing the learning on what each crew member already knows, or has done or has shown.  A great jazz musician is constantly trying to embellish, linking old ways to new paths, adjusting to suggestions or ideas in order to reframe previous ways of conducting business (page 26). A great Supt. will be constantly trying new approaches because they know that you’ll always get what you’ve got when you do what you’ve been doing.

This Alblum is refered to constantly throughout the book, for being the Jazz Album to change it all.  Davis gave minimal structure the day this alblum was created, allowing for members to really learn and improv without any preformed ideas.

Chapter 3: Performing and Experimenting Simultaneously: Chapter 3 dives deeper into organizational learning, specifically how important it is for organizations to learn to treat errors as opportunities. One question the author asks early in the chapter is “What does it mean to live in a team culture in which it is OK to bring your errors forward, to publicly discuss mistakes?” What do you think about this? How do you view errors? How about your organization? How can errors lead to improvements, at the personal or organizational level?

A team culture that views mistakes, errors, failures or fuck-ups as part of their own conception of the learning curve actively promotes advancing individuals capabilities, as well as the the abilities for the overall organization.  When all we focus on is reprimand and ridicule, people fail to learn.  Our organization as wildland firefighters has come a long way: we had the task force of 1957’, we had the downhill line construction checklist, the fire orders and 18 watch out situations, we have LCES developed from the Dude Fire by Paul Gleason, the go no-go checklist for prescribed burns from the aftermath of the Cerro Grande Fire.  We have the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center, a developed group of well contemplated staff rides.  In essence we as an organization have made efforts towards viewing mistakes as learning opportunities.  However, when it comes to local units, it varies.  Oftentimes the smaller mistakes are glorified into heirachechal power plays, aimed at empowering the ones who didn’t fuck up, and belittling the ones who did.  And even sometimes, demeaning the whole lot, as opposed to reshaping the circumstances into a positive forward development.

The large errors usually don’t go unnoticed, but sometimes get swept under the rug depending on the culture of the environment.  There is a huge double standard in our organization, where 1039’s aren’t allowed to make mistakes, and when PSE’s make mistakes, they are protected by the organization in a sense.  This means a lot of mistakes made by overhead don’t get discussed openly, and when they are discussed, its usually behind the other persons back or a muttering under the breath. But the mistakes made by the 1039’s? We root those out as a disease.  Instead, if the smaller errors were viewed more as a way to go deeper to the problem in order to change, our perspective on mistakes would change.  It’s a fine line though, because if we treat errors as being void of consequence rather than subject to them, the easy way out only becomes a learning event, and only if we are caught.  However, just the act of being caught itself, in order to create a learning event, is a powerful catalyst for promoting job place competence and not negligence.

Chapter 3 has some great stuff in it.  It got me thinking about the constance of time as it relates to embellishing as that relates to failure as failure relates to innovation and progression.  We have all arrived at moments by accident simply through focused effort, which impressed us.  I remember vividly when my Engine Captain was teaching me to run saw.  He’d tell me “ok, your cuts are diving.  You’ve got stay level.  I want you to pretend  there’s a beer on the tip of your bar.  That’s my beer.  Don’t spill my fucking beer.”  This idea has only one rule of thumb.  Don’t spill the fucking beer.  Instead of trying to explain the whole process in a series of orders and steps, the pathway to reach that end is left up to the dipshit holding the saw.  I learned a ton from this guy because when you made a mistake, you were going to learn how the hell to do it right.  And more often he’d show you, you’d emulate, and repeat the process until there was a level of competence.  But the lessons were always just given a basic rule like “don’t spill my fucking beer” which allowed more freedom to fail because you had to figure out the steps on your own.

Chapter 4: Minimal Structure – Maximal Autonomy: In this chapter there’s a lot of discussion about group interactions and how minimal structure and maximal autonomy can lead to successful outcomes in chaotic situations. How do you see this idea tying in to wildland fire operations? Is this idea similar to how ICS works? How does a minimal structure that creates maximal opportunity for action relate to leader’s intent?

This chapter opens with a great point about Robert Deniro, who argued that great actors need constraints of character and situation in order to meaningfully improvise.  This idea ties directly to wildland operations because in order for us to make good decisions, we have to be governed by principles which constitute “good decisions”. This reminds me of Go Point by Micheal Useem where he breaks down the decisions made by Mackey on Storm King into Principles, with tools used to guide those decisions. We can’t, as a squad boss, order a bucket drop on something we don’t want to dry mop if we know air resources are stretched thin, and the only way to know this is if we have good information.  So we are constrained by good information and the overall goal of our efforts as they relate to the adjoining resources.

In wildland fire we are constrained by the ICS structure. The history of that is worth a read, something I did to understand this question on a deeper level. Here is the link http://www.emsics.com/history-of-ics.  It was created as a necessity and remains the backbone to our operations.  As far as on the line, we operate relatively freely within that structure.  It goes back to “don’t spill my fucking beer”.  We have leaders intent, and every individual operates under that direction.  How safely, efficiently, productively, creatively, is influenced by this intent and how artfully that intent is communicated down ICS structure to Joe Blow FF2.

Chapter 5: Jamming and Hanging Out: Building on the idea of learning by doing from Chapter 3, the author explores ideas about how jazz musicians learn and experiment by working with diverse groups of people. How does diversity of ideas and experience help people learn in wildland fire? How about in your organization? In wildland fire, think about how different geographical areas and crew types have different ways of doing things, and think about how sharing those ideas stimulates creativity. Are there any examples from your experience where you learned a new skill or tactic from someone with a different set of experiences that yours?

A lot of firefighters learn from the school of hard knocks. Whether it’s how to use a chainsaw through cutting your chaps, creating downhill line construction checklists, or life in general.  Wildland Fire attracts doer’s, people who can just hop in and give it a go, trusting their tenacity to augment mistakes with minor adjustments as events unfold.  I am this way.  I can be told one thing and not understand it because i haven’t tested it, seen it, felt it.  But this is dependent on who I’m with.  If it’s somebody I know well, and understand them to be competent or incompetent, I gauge what they say accordingly.  However, when it’s someone I don’t know, I don’t have the security of or ability to prejudge what they have to offer, only stereotypes and rumors, which never breed anything too worthwhile.  What I’m saying is recognizing diversity as an opportunity is a huge step towards recognizing circumstances for expedient development, which is only possible through the willing suspension of those pre canned notions.

The question “are there any examples from your experience where you learned a new skill or tactic from someone with a different set of experiences than yours?” is a little bit frustrating because It makes me want to be a smart ass.  The answer is OF COURSE I’VE LEARNED NEW SKILLS FROM PEOPLE THAT WEREN’T DNA REPLICAS OF MYSELF!  Everything we learn is related to somewhere outside, someone else, some other thing, etc.  We get under the selfish assumption that learning happens through the traditional master-and-pupil method, where the senior passes down the skills and information.  But what about the Senior?  They are also learning.  Since I’ve started this blog, and through my life experiences, any knowledge or skill I’ve ever earned or developed has only been embellished or enhanced through imparting and sharing.  I think over this past season: I was lead sawyer on a T2IA crew.  I had the chance to teach two swampers how to more effectively cut.  This sharpened my abilities because it gave me a self awareness for activities previously instinctual and internalized. Then there was navigation, fire history, IC’ing a fire, local lay of the land, and leadership: same deal.  Teach what you know to embellish what you know.   

Chapter 6: Taking Turns Soloing and Supporting: Leadership and followership go hand in hand. What are some ways that leaders can promote good followership? What are some ways followers can promote good leadership? How is the leader/follower dynamic in your organization or group? How is being an innovative, active follower important in wildland fire? How is letting your followers participate in leadership (i.e. letting them “solo”) important? How does Steve Nash, the NBA point guard, approach the leadership role on the court? How could that way leading be applied in your role as a leader and follower?

Ways Leaders Can Promote Good Followership: Impart knowledge and skill and then push control down the chain of command.  I think of Turn This Ship Around by David Marquet, another selection for the 2016 Wildland Fire Leadership Development Reading Challenge.  Marquet talks about how the traditional role leader follower fails to account for the intellectual aspects of our duties, how a leader-leader approach empowers people to make decisions that elaborate the overall direction of the organization towards one of mutual self sufficiency.  This leader-leader method can be adopted within the framework of leader-follower if the followers also take the time to establish the differences between themselves and their piers and impart their glimpses of diverse experiences in momentary fashions of leader-follower outside the traditional hierarchy of pay grade/ chain of command.  This reiterates the dichotomy of leading without being told to, given authority, given a title or compensated for it.

Nash, who the author cites as having one of the highest Basketball IQ’s to have ever lived,  knew that it was about the feel of the game, “to know when to push, to know when to hold back, to know the nuances of the situation, whether it be psychology or strategy.  The feel for the game is the one thing I think people underrate.” Related to our job, it ties to the way we make strategies for dealing with the task given to us, the job title given to us, the people placed under our command and how we conduct ourselves.  Applying to myself, at the squad boss level, means giving others opportunities to do the things i’m responsible for at the right times.  The timing is critical.  Finding the right times and circumstances to push your squad to new levels of performance means choosing, extrapolating circumstances for opportunities.   

Chapter 7: Leadership as Provocative Competence: How is it important, in jazz as well as wildland fire, to know what the people around you are best at? How important is it to know their strengths and weaknesses? How is “provocative competence” about building relationships and influence? What are some ways you can keep things “fresh” and avoid complacency in a leadership environment?

Barrett says “To grow as a catalyst leader and as a person, we have to be always ready to integrate what we currently are not, into our own repertoire.”  The importance of this as it relates to Wildland Fire is by understanding ourselves, we can seek it from those around us, not necessarily as an acquisition, but as a supplementation.  And as we allow others, actually push others(through small constraints) to elaborate themselves, we acquire a more refined group dynamic and interplay.

Ways to keep things “fresh” and avoid complacency in a leadership environment?  By timing when and where to reframe the context of our circumstances and a willingness to “risk appearing unrealistic, even foolish..”

Chapter 8: Getting to “Yes to the Mess”: This chapter is an “improviser’s toolkit” that serves as a summary of the ideas found in the previous chapters, along with some tips for how to implement them. As you read it, think of how the different concepts and ideas discussed in the can fit in your organization or crew.

I think if our crew overhead sat down and asked themselves some of these basic questions, some pretty cool stuff could happen.  Chapter 8 is full of questions, and if you don’t have the time or want to make the effort to read the entire book, consider reading Chapter 8 just for the questions.

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