Teams that fight wildfires have much to teach business managers about preventing complex and dynamic problems from spiraling out of control.
Dysfunctional momentum” occurs when people continue to work toward an original goal without pausing to recalibrate or reexamine their processes, even in the face of cues that suggest they should change course
In the authors’ study of firefighting teams as a metaphor for business organizations, where dysfunctional momentum arises daily, they found that it has at least five possible causes: (1) an overemphasis on action and decisiveness, which often precludes meaningful assessment along the way; (2) evaluating people, processes and outcomes against plans rather than reevaluating the plans themselves; (3) the cumulative effects of small changes that can ripple and grow throughout the organization; (4) the tendency to ignore or co-opt disconfirming evidence; and (5) deference to authority even when leaders are not especially in the know
To overcome dysfunctional momentum, the authors conclude, 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? The people in charge need to stop and reassess what is happening around them.
Two interconnected factors tend to be instrumental, say the authors. First, individuals have to recognize their own inability to understand fully and predict the unfolding situation by themselves–they have to develop “situated humility.” Second, they must actively create or seek out disruptive information–they have to accept interruptions so that people may reevaluate the story they are maintaining in their minds.