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Accidents, Mistakes, and Bad Decisions

A firefighter sideswipes a car with the fire apparatus when pulling out of a tight parking spot. Is this event the result of an accident, a mistake or a bad decision?

Of course the answer to this question is—it depends. If the driver saw the car, realized he probably didn't have enough room to turn, but pulled out anyway, then clearly this was a bad decision.

But what if the driver was relatively inexperienced and honestly thought he could make the turn? Or what if the rig had already been parked when a car pulled in too close beside it and the driver was forced to make a quick decision when responding to an emergency call?

Accidents, mistakes and bad decisions have different causes and should be handled differently for the best outcomes. All three provide learning opportunities and all three involve accountability. But to treat them all the same will undermine leadership and trust within the organization as well as increase the likelihood that the bad action will be repeated.

True accidents are fairly rare and might be either simple or complex. Simple accidents are usually the result of circumstance, inattention or faulty assumptions. Complex accidents are a result of tightly coupled systems where one aspect of the system influences assumptions and actions in another part.

Mistakes are a result of lack of knowledge and experience to make a more-informed decision. Mistakes are inadvertent—people are doing their best with the information they have at the time. Mistakes are sometimes related to external factors, such as time pressure and lack of sleep.

Bad decisions can be either individual or systemic and are often linked to organizational culture. Norming of behavior can lead to organizational acceptance of incrementally worsening decisions until a crisis point is reached.

Accidents will happen, especially in a profession as unpredictable as the fire service. But accidents can be mitigated through training, proper equipment and tools, and constructive incident analysis.

Mistakes are necessary for people to learn new skills. Training must support “safe” failures. Organizational culture must not stigmatize mistakes to the point where people will make bad decisions to avoid being caught in an error.

Bad decisions are preventable. Since bad decisions are often a result of systemic and cultural issues, it isn't useful to severely punish one person for something that has been normal behavior at an organizational level.

Everyone in the organization must be trained and empowered to make good decisions at both the individual and group levels. Training and good leadership will also give people the skills and confidence to challenge questionable decisions being made by others.

Good decisions don’t just happen. They are a result of good leadership, training, experience and empowerment at all levels of the organization. Good decision making at an organizational level is always guided by a sense of common mission.

The workshop Accidents, Mistakes, and Bad Decisions is part of the Chief Officer Leadership Symposium on Friday afternoon at FRI 2015. This session will use fire service scenarios to further explore the differences among these three events and will also provide specific tools and tips for making better decisions both individually and organizationally. Register for FRI for more on this topic and other education sessions.

Linda Willing is president of RealWorld Training & Consulting.

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