deep dive

Making Decisions Like a Firefighter

Massive product recall. Loss of faith in management. Economic collapse. These are all examples of crises that no-one wants to strike their company.
A wrong decision or mistake can easily lead to a crisis. Likewise, a bad decision during an organizational crisis can easily exacerbate the situation, making things much worse than they ever needed to be.

During a crisis, you are usually pressed both in terms of time and resources. You have to choose quickly which course of action to take. An organizational crisis usually requires balancing many different stakeholder interests, without much time to decide how to best take care of everyone, and who to prioritize first. How, then, do we make the right decisions during a crisis?

Lots of decision-making models, such as SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats), presume that the decision-maker has lots of time to consider many different factors and weigh the options before choosing their course of action. In business, and especially during a crisis, time and resources are limited. Without time to consider all of the options, we need another way to make swift, purposeful decisions.

Thinking Like a Firefighter

Gary Klein studied how firefighters make decisions in the workplace. To his surprise, the firefighters said that they didn’t make decisions at all, as they didn’t actively choose between any options. They simply acted and reacted based on their previous experiences without trying to come up with different courses of action. From this study, Klein developed a model, called the “recognition primed decision-making model,” which he claims is used in 90% of all situations, not just in a crisis.

Klein’s model consists of two steps:
Recognize the course of action that makes the most sense.
Imagine how this would look in reality.
What does “makes the most sense” mean for you, as a decision-maker? Quite simply, this step means relying on your previous experiences, looking for patterns and cues that you recognize to make sense of the situation. These patterns and cues come from your own knowledge base. For example, a firefighter looks back to their training and past fires that they’ve been in to find recognizable cues in the current situation.

The second step is also reliant on your past experiences, as your imagination of how the situation will play out is limited to your own understanding of how things have worked out previously. Basically, instead of comparing several alternative decisions, you are comparing the decision that makes the most sense with your past experiences and imagining how it will play out.

Preparing Like a Firefighter

Preparing yourself for an organizational crisis is, then, largely dependent on gaining as much experience as possible. As a decision-maker, you are limited by your own knowledge and past experiences, and the only way to fix this is through more experience. However, purposely throwing your company into a crisis just so that you can collectively gain experience in how different decisions will turn out is not an option. Neither is carelessly making decisions to see what does and doesn’t lead to a crisis. Instead, you should practice like a firefighter, and simulate different scenarios, so you can get real experience in making critical decisions and facing a crisis, all in a safe environment.

At Celemi, we believe in the power of learning through business simulations. Our different programs give you and your employees practice making decisions and seeing how different scenarios will play out at all levels of the organization. By giving your employees common ground through learning, you are preparing your people to make smart decisions under pressure. They will learn how to balance interests and needs between different stakeholders and divisions, and ultimately how to see the big-picture consequences of their actions.

Contact us if you’d like to talk more about how we can prepare you to make the right choices in a crisis, just like a firefighter.
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