Decisions: Encouraging People to Make Them

“A difference which makes no difference is no difference.”

That quote, attributed to philosopher and psychologist William James, essentially says that in some instances, no matter what the strategy or tactics, the outcome would be the same. Legendary New York Yankee Yogi Berra said, “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.”

Simply put, do we practice what we teach?

This isn’t about the decision-making process. It’s about fostering an environment where people are encouraged and empowered to make decisions.

With that support comes an acceptance that there are multiple ways to achieve successful results. Understanding that a difference that makes no difference is no difference requires training, trust and teamwork.

It requires not being critical of decisions made differently from how you would do it, but that accomplish the same goal.

The continued reproach, “That’s not how I would have done it,” can result in the opposite culture: “Just waiting for orders.” “I’m not paid to think.”

The fire service wants—and needs—firefighters and officers who think, who take action. Who better serve our customers while operating within department and safety guidelines. Who make decisions that save time or make a strategic difference while working within the incident-command system.

It’s a challenging expectation.

Some lack the training, experience or confidence. Others are concerned that making the wrong decision will make them look incompetent. With the expectations of decision-making comes a tolerance that mistakes will be made.

To achieve anything, you have to choose a direction and move forward, writes Laura Stack, an expert on productivity. Positive after-action debriefings present the move-forward opportunity, exploring the what, why and how, as well as the results, of decisions made.

Confidence, says Texas surgeon Dr. Anil K. Sinha, is not achieved overnight. It can be achieved by learning from mistakes and experience.

The fear of mistakes starts early, says Alina Tugend, author of Better By Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong. One of the reasons? We say one thing and do another: We say that mistakes provide learning opportunities, but we do everything we can to protect kids from making them.

Effective decision-making is important to corporate success. Those decisions affect people’s lives, their jobs, their money or the continued success of the company. Often there is time, committees, research, development and reports to help make choices.

Corporations aren’t tested by or have resulting consequences of split-second, life-or-death, protecting-property kinds of decisions. Decisions that retired FDNY Deputy Chief Vincent Dunn knows are made every day during fires and emergencies.

Do I have sufficient resources at the scene or should I call for reinforcements?

Do I have enough resources to attack the fire or should all firefighters do search and rescue and let the building burn?

Should I give up the original burning building and protect adjoining exposures?

While the latest USFA statistics show that residential is the leading property type for fire deaths, injuries and dollar loss, from 2002 to 2011 there has been an actual 19.5% decrease in fires. Coupled with that are few opportunities for new or acting officers to make command decisions. In many jurisdictions, there are few opportunities for anyone annually.

It demonstrates the importance of implementing incident command on small incidents, preparing everyone for the bigger ones.

Incident command, incident success and customer service are all improved by building a department philosophy that trains and encourages decision-making at all levels. Allowing new or junior officers to perform in the command roles allows senior officers to observe, know what will happen in their absence or determine training deficiencies.

Noted leadership expert John C. Maxwell wrote, “Inability to make decisions is one of the principal reasons executives fail. Deficiency in decision-making ranks much higher than lack or specific knowledge or technical know-how as an indicator of leadership failure.”

To paraphrase: personnel hesitating or failing to make decisions reflects on the leadership of the department, not the person.

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