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Being Your Worst Critic

September 4, 2009

Firefighters spend a lot of time talking about their job.  In fact, if you were a fly on the wall listening to the banter going on around the kitchen table in the average fire station, you might wonder if they were all talk and no action.  More often than not though this talk has a purpose, and it often plays an important part in getting them ready to act wisely when they need to.

After every incident, firefighters discuss what they did, how well it worked, and what they could do to improve their performance next time.  Whether conducted informally while putting their gear away or more formally as a structured and facilitated process, this discussion serves two purposes: 1) to get every possible perspective on an incident out on the table so everyone can see  things they were not in a position to recognize at the time and 2) to identify opportunities for improvement, especially in the way they communicate.

This process can look kind of messy, and the language often sounds pretty coarse.  Nevertheless there are two rules everybody must follow: no one and nothing is above criticism and everyone participates.  Doing things this way sends a clear signal to the participants that no one knows everything about an incident, every decision and action can be improved upon, and failure is unacceptable.

This process has clear advantages in operationally sensitive organizations that strive for high-reliability.  But it can also prevent people from recognizing what went well and how that can be leveraged to achieve better results.

Anytime the stakes are high, people will find it much easier to pick up things that did not work well than things that did.  This point was driven home very clearly to me shortly after I became a fire chief and I had the opportunity to attend an alarm where the crews I commanded had performed exceptionally.

When we convened a formal, structured debrief to examine and try to build on this success, the participants tried to undo almost every good decision they made.  Had they done what they proposed in the debrief during the actual incident, they might have achieved the same result more efficiently but their new solutions would have worked only in hindsight.  In the real event, these changes would have required them to take unacceptable risks.

This raises an important point for any organization seeking to engage everyone in efforts to promote improvement: Inviting your organization and its members to be their own worst critics is about critical thinking not criticism.  Being constructive is more important than finding fault.

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