First Responders rush to chaos to bring calm to a situation.  It takes a special mindset to do that day after day.  To have a mindset to handle this stress every day takes mental preparedness.  In today’s post, I want to discuss what I have learned about what First Responders do to develop their mental preparedness and how that could apply to business.  

Mental preparedness is key.  This is true for First Responders and virtually all careers.  We must be mentally prepared and focused on the task at hand.  Chaos is stressful for most people.  Our reaction to a chaotic situation can either help bring calm or bring more chaos.  Human nature wants simplicity and order.  Chaos is exactly not that.  To be better prepared to help resolve chaos, to run to chaos, we must be mentally prepared.  Many times First Responders do not know exactly what they are going to encounter.  But they are mentally prepared to handle whatever comes their way.  So what can we learn from them that might apply to business?

In an article by Jeff Boss entitled “6 Ways to Thrive in Chaos”, he talks about his time in Basic Underwater Demolition/Seals Training.  One of the more impactful quotes from the article is “…to thrive in Chaos and adapt to change requires the mental preparedness to modify one’s thoughts at a moment’s notice…”  Boss describes the training Seals go through as “Evolutions”.   Each session focusses on the fact that no matter what you are trained to do, there will be a requirement for transforming the lessons when in the field.  So not only do they train skills, but they also spend time training how to apply the new skills in different situations.  They focus on the mental preparedness to change.  The Seals know that no matter how effectively they teach their soldiers, once they are on a mission, things will change and chaos will ensue.  They must be mentally prepared to handle chaotic situations.  Their training helped them keep calm and think through the options to develop the best solution for each situation. This ability to adapt the training to the situation at hand saves lives.

Like many of you I spent a significant amount of my career both conducting training and receiving training.  Yet, I do not remember too many sessions that also spent time focusing on preparing me and others to be prepared to modify our thinking quickly if faced with a chaotic situation.  How could we take the sales skills, the product knowledge, or the process knowledge and modify it to meet the immediate needs if faced with a chaotic situation?   While none of those are as threatening as anything Seals encounter, the situations are still important at that moment when an employee has to make a decision how to use the training they have received to resolve the particular situation facing them.  If our training sessions have not done a good job of preparing our employees for something different than what was taught (or how to apply it in different ways), how can we expect them to be mentally prepared to handle chaos?  We likely would never be able to teach all of the variations, but to take time to help our employees think about how to apply training in different situations would make them more comfortable when they are back in their jobs and faced with an unpredictable, uncomfortable, stressful, chaotic situation they need to resolve.

Emergency Medical Technicians are taught to evaluate a situation immediately upon arriving. Many times there are at least two EMTs.  One immediately begins focusing on people that may need immediate attention.  The other is collecting information.  Typically they are taught to answer a series of questions upon arriving.  Examples include:

                What has happened here?

                What is currently happening?

                Does any of this look familiar?

                What do we know right now?

                What do we need to know asap?

                What do I want to do?

                What do I have to do?

                What can I do?

These are not complicated questions, but they do provide a disciplined approach to collecting important information for themselves and to potentially share with others.  They also collect vital signs of the victims, etc.  They have a process they use to make sure they think of what is happening and what they need to do.  The process helps bring calm to the situation by helping them focus on going through the questions.  And when they need additional help, they get Emergency Room personnel on the phone or videoconference.  Perhaps the best idea to learn from here is how the process helps them collect pertinent information and immediately share that information with others to develop the best course of action.  Having a process to collect information that everyone who is involved in the situation understands, helps resolve the situation quicker.  Time is not wasted on getting the important facts and figures so all stakeholders can have the same understanding of the situation.  The stakeholders focus on resolving the situation. 

How many times when faced with a challenging, chaotic situation, do those of us leading companies stop to ask a series of questions like the ones above?  Or more importantly, how much time do we spend teaching our employees key questions to ask, important data to collect, etc.?  How many times do our employees call others that can help?  No doubt, some do ask questions and do call on others in the company to help.  But too many times people rush in and try to resolve something immediately without a common process of collecting and sharing pertinent information.  Their motives are good, but many times their execution is not.  Many times the result of this is to actually go down the wrong path in resolving a situation.  Taking time to learn and then take action can be most effective.  If a First Responder dealing with much more urgent and dangerous situations than we are can take time, then surely we can in business as well.  But the key is to train for it, to learn how to apply this thought process, and to help develop the mental preparedness of our employees. 

I worked for a company that utilized 6 Sigma successfully for many years.  It was very useful and transformational on many levels.  But for me, the most important aspect was that it was a common process across the company and was a common “language” for everyone to use to solve difficult problems. Sales, Operations, Manufacturing, Engineering, Accounting, Finance, Legal, etc.all used the same 6 Sigma language and process to handle problems. Having a common process and language sped the time to resolving problems.  I think taking a similar approach of having a common process and language for defining and handling chaotic situations in a company would be a powerful tool.  That process could define the questions to ask, roles for different people to assume, etc.  As we have seen this is what First Responders do to improve their mental preparedness to handle tough, chaotic situations effectively and efficiently. 

From my point of view, as the business world becomes more chaotic, this mental preparedness we can learn from the BUD/Seals training will become more and more important.  I think people who organize training sessions need to think through adding this “Evolution” to the application part of their training.  I feel we have an obligation to our employees, customers, and suppliers, to better prepare each other to face the chaos and to have the mental preparedness to handle it effectively and bring calm to the situation.  And I think to incorporate questions similar to the ones First Responders are taught should be integrated more into our training. 

Chaos is not necessarily a bad thing.  It is an opportunity to bring creativity to a challenging situation, help our teammates, and differentiate our company.  We must be mentally prepared to adapt to change quickly.  This does not happen without practice.  Training sessions must be modified to help us think through different, challenging situations.  Just as First Responders go through continual training so they can handle different situations they may face when they are called to duty, we must help prepare ourselves and our teammates to be prepared when we run to chaos.

I believe we also need to consider developing the processes that include questions to ask, data to collect, etc., and the way this information will be shared.  We need to provide the leadership to put these processes in place to help our employees handle the challenging situations they face.  I am convinced businesses move faster today and have more issues facing them.  This puts more pressure on our employees to handle different situations, many times on their own.  They feel like the first arriving First Responders sometimes.  We need to make sure we have provided them with the training and the processes to bring calm and order to situations.

Training helps develop our culture.  I have long felt that the culture a company develops is its most important competitive advantage.  The right culture brings out the best in all of the people in the organization.  They rise to higher performance levels taking better care of customers, teammates, suppliers, and all other stakeholders.  Developing the mental preparedness to handle chaos should become part of the culture in companies.

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1 Comment

  1. Great thinking! Below are some additional thoughts to consider.

    Is the comparison more metaphorical than real?
    First responders are faced with life and death situations that require action within short time periods—seconds, minutes, hours. Putting aside disaster recovery scenarios, businesses face life/death situations gradually. They often have long lead times of warning and reaction to adverse events (e.g., impeding legislation, advent of new technology, hostile takeovers, etc.)

    The practices of first responders are fashioned to minimize damage in situations that emerge without any warning or time to prepare. Often, these decisions are gambles—the fire battalion chief who sends firefighters into a burning building gambles that the building will not collapse before they can bring the fire under control. He doesn’t have time to consider all the variables that could make this a bad gamble and calmly assess the odds. Businesses have the benefit of time; the decision-making process is therefore quite different.

    Is “chaos” really another word for “complexity”?
    Highly complex systems (weather, economies, business conditions) behave in ways that look chaotic, but are actually systematic. In the short term, outcomes in these systems may be predicted with some accuracy. But in the long term, their outcomes take on properties of randomness. Human beings are not hardwired to easily understand randomness. We are constantly looking for patterns in random events. Most of the time, we fool ourselves into seeing patterns that aren’t there. It’s not surprising that organizations put too much faith in their leaders’ ability to see patterns that others can’t see, when in fact there are no patterns—just randomness.

    But there are smart ways of dealing with randomness and understanding odds. In my view, there are tools businesses can adopt and disseminate throughout their organizations to improve decision-making in the face of complexity.

    So what are these tools and how can they be used?
    Start with understanding and identifying the inherent weaknesses in how human beings form judgments and act on them. Then, build a culture that resists decision-making flowing from these weaknesses. The pioneering work of behavioral psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and others, provides some clues.

    Adopt practices that avoid these decision-making pitfalls.

    What You See Is All There Is: a cursory examination of the situation gives you a “gut feeing” about the correct decision. Gut reactions to complex problems generally produce wrong answers. We are all incredibly lazy in digging for facts that may affect our decisions. (Consider your gut reaction to this problem. “A bat and ball together cost $1.10. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?”)

    Law of Small Numbers: using a few past occurrences of an event to predict its occurrence in the future. (The last two winters in Chicago have been cold; what’s the probability the next winter will be as cold?)

    Ego Depletion: complex decisions deplete the levels of glucose in our brains. Complex decisions made during marathon meetings or among exhausted, hungry participants are usually flawed.

    Psychological Priming: words, symbols and pictures evoke strong subconscious reactions in their observers. Priming is used by organizations to manipulate behavior of targeted groups (employees, consumers, even citizens).

    Halo Effect: first impressions always bias second and third impressions, even when they relate to different attributes. Example, when people first meet someone who is pleasant and articulate, they are more likely to believe that person is also, say, intelligent (despite having no evidence to support this).

    Correlated Judgment Errors: people will often change their initial judgments/decisions to conform with what others judge/decide (especially in conjunction with the Halo Effect). Group decisions are best made when opinions are expressed independently and then synthesized.

    Framing Effects: our judgments/decisions are influenced by how alternatives are presented. (Consider: “Your chances of surviving this surgery are 90%” vs. “Your chances of dying from this surgery are 10%.”)

    Jumping to Conclusions: we tend to look for facts that fit the “story” we already have in our minds about a situation, and dismiss facts that do not fit that story. Our confidence in a judgment is based on the coherence of this story with available information. We are unlikely to seek facts that do not fit this story and reject them when they are found.

    There are other biases and heuristics that affect people’s decisions, beliefs and behavior. Exploring them is a fascinating exercise.

    My point is this. Business organizations are collections of people who coordinate their activities to achieve a collective purpose. Leaders of business organizations need to (1) understand how their constituents form judgments and make decisions and (2) introduce processes and procedures that minimize flawed decisions and maximize informed ones.


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