Matthew Will & Rob Nicol - May 26 2020
What Firefighters Can Teach Us About Decision-Making

Photo Credit: David Gray/Bloomberg

The extreme events and societal upheaval that COVID-19 has brought with it have clearly put decision makers in a difficult position. Rather than relying on past evidence to inform decisions, now more than ever, decision makers must shift to contemplate future trends and behaviours. This is no easy task where the impacts of the virus, and our response to it, are both varied and evolving.

As Australia contemplates the unprecedented year that has been 2020 (a year characterised by disaster whether bushfires, hailstorms or COVID-19), it is useful for decision-makers to consider what we can learn from any similarities between these disasters.

Dave Snowden’s Cynefin Framework positions different processes for decision-making based on different situations into the following categories:

  • "known knowns” (simple);
  • “known unknowns” (complicated); and
  • “unknown unknowns” (complex).

COVID-19 and similar crises require decision-making amid “unknown unknowns” – i.e., situations that Snowden describes as unpredictable and in constant flux. Simply put, our decision-making needs to adapt, allowing us to make decisions based on probable behaviour.

Decision-making lessons from rural fire settings

According to Palladium’s Matthew Will, unknown unknowns are familiar to firefighters, who primarily make decisions on how to fight a fire based on the behaviour of the fire rather than on hectares burnt.

Will experienced this first-hand during his time as Lead Crew member for the United States Forest Service, working on large, complex fires in the western U.S. – an experience that has informed his views on leadership, evidence, and decision-making in environments such as COVID-19.

“Every new firefighter learns that there are three basic elements needed for fire,” says Will. “These include fuel (trees, brush, or grass), heat (temperature), and oxygen (wind).”

“If you understand these elements in context, you can predict and influence the behaviour of the fire.”

Wildland firefighters use this knowledge of fire behaviour for real-time sensemaking. On the fire line, they monitor humidity, slope of land, wind speed and direction, fuel, temperature, and the location of the fire. They make decisions based on the behaviour of the fire before it spreads, and set contingencies in place for multiple outcomes.

“For example, if temperature increases, humidity decreases, wind increases, and firefighters are uphill, the fire will most likely grow quickly uphill towards them,” Will explains.

Decision Making and COVID-19

Similarly, development organisations can make decisions before governments have responded in a crisis – before COVID-19 has spread widely or recurred, and before all impacts are known.

As firefighters make decisions based on oxygen, fuel and temperature, weighing the probable behaviours of the most critical elements, we can make decisions and build contingencies based on the probable behaviour of COVID-19, of governments, and of people in each context.

Here are three suggestions to help enable this approach.

1. Use sensemaking behaviour indicators, rather than standard, linear indicators.

Sensemaking is literally making sense of new and emerging developments, and allows us to frame our decisions based on how governments, people, and COVID-19 itself are behaving. As this pandemic continues to mature, we need to develop sensemaking indicators, and recognise that at least initially, these will not be linear (such as the number of cases). Rather, they will signify emerging changes and give us enough information to make decisions.

We can create this information through methods such as sentiment analysis of social media posts, micro-narrative analysis of individual and government behaviours, and COVID-specific Political Economy Analysis.

SenseMaker is one narrative research methodology designed by Snowden for these types of complex situations. To illustrate how it works, we can look at the example below, in which participants were asked to tell a short story about COVID-19, and then signify on a triangle the situation that their story leads to. Each dot is a participant’s answer, which begins to show trends that are non-linear in nature but can still be disaggregated for deeper analysis.

As the response to COVID-19 or other similar types of disasters shift to the level of “known unknowns”, indicators can become more linear.

2. Programming pivots are the new normal.

As has happened with COVID-19, development organisations need to pivot programming based on probable future scenarios – with contingencies for multiple scenarios – rather than on current needs.

End of Program Outcomes (EOPO) should remain similar, but intermediate outputs and activities should reflect the behaviours we are seeing with the virus, governments, and people involved, planning ahead but staying adaptive. For example, the DFAT-funded Pathways program (an education program with peace outcomes) aims to improve learning outcomes among a socially excluded population. This has remained the case, but new activities, outputs and targets have shifted towards the current human security concern and flexible learning options.

As the disaster moves forward, interventions can be designed but the probable behavior of people (e.g., will people enroll children?); government (when will the government open schools?); and COVID-19 (what is the probable spread / risk of recurrence?) must stay at the forefront.

Many donor agencies have been not only willing to pivot in response to changing realities, but have put in place systems to enable them to do so, following a model with multiple planning contingencies. Programs that traditionally follow a development cycle need to now shift to a more traditional disaster response cycle that allows for ongoing reassessment as the response matures. This means programming areas that are traditionally more linear should be able to identify components that need to be cancelled or postponed, and redirect funding to support emerging outcomes in new ways.

This form of adaptation is ideal for performance management systems like the ones used by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), as all reporting is done towards End of Program Outcomes, allowing outputs and activities to adapt.

3. Staff on the frontline need to make decisions.

In times of uncertainty, front-line leaders need to be able to make decisions and have those decisions backed. Organisationally, the people closest to the problem need to be given the authority and the guidance to act to solve the problem, which requires essential information and channels to communicate these decisions to those they lead, the client and their organisation.

As the curve flattens, it is timely to consider where to from here; into what different world will we emerge? Considering both the future and the ‘unknowns’ presented by COVID-19 as prevailing considerations for our decision-making will be key to emerging stronger and carrying more adaptive decision-making capabilities into the recovery phase.