Risk Management is a Skill of Unconscious Competence

June 1 2012, By , No Comments

Business Firefighting Skills

The term “business firefighting” gets used a lot and has been defined in various ways.  Obviously, the very term comes from the crisis and risk heavy world of actual firefighting.  But sometimes even real firefighters deal with situations that don’t equate to a “life and death” scenario.  However, the skills necessary to deal with any crisis or risk management situation, regardless of the severity, are the same.

One day, my “Third Alarm” co-founder, Jim Bird and I were having a conversation in my office.  I was seated at my desk, with Jim to my left sitting in a chair with his back against the office wall.  As we were discussing some important issues about our business, I notice his eyes lose focus on mine and momentarily lock on something else – appearing to go nearly “cross-eyed”.

As we were talking, there was a string hanging from an overhead light that was directly in our view of each other.  Because I did not routinely have people in my office, I had not done anything about this pull string that I used to switch the light on and off.

Without skipping a beat, Jim continued to convey his thoughts as he took the string and tied a four inch loop about three feet above my desk.  Then he pulled the bottom end of the string over to a phone cord that was plugged into the wall outlet located behind him, tying the end of the string to the phone cord so it was no longer dangling in our view.

The string was permanently out of the way, and the loop that he tied was now a handy place to use my finger to pull the light on and off – nice job, Jim!

Watching Jim reminded me of what business firefighting is, and how it is like actual firefighting.  It is like trying to accomplish one task that requires focus and concentration, while also trying to tune out all of the noise and distractions that are ever present at a fire, a medical rescue – or business emergency.

There is a learning curve for every new skill we master.  Business firefighting is a skill requiring competence to be able to properly respond when things don’t go as planned.  The steps of competency are as follows:

  1. First we are unconsciously incompetent.  In other words, we don’t even realize that we are doing something wrong.
  2. Second, we learn a new skill and become consciously incompetent.  We aren’t fully capable, yet we do know when we make a mistake and learn from it.
  3. Third, we become consciously competent.  We are still in the learning mode, but we are able to think about and deliver the correct way to perform the skill.
  4. Fourth, we have mastered the skill and have reached the level of unconscious competence.  We do something correctly without even being aware that we have done so.

What Jim was demonstrating, as he simultaneously finished his discussion and performed his knot tying expertise, was his unconscious competence with the Command-Plan-Respond Process.   While his mind was working to verbally transfer information to me, his “inner firefighter” took over as he also took command of the changing current situation – which was a dangling string causing a distraction to what he was trying to accomplish.

He quickly realized that the only resource he had to fix this problem was his own future actions, which he mentally tagged as his “definition of success.”  Of course, because he was still making his point with me, he never said any of this, and just got it done without explanation.

While still engaged in conversation of a very serious and well thought out point of view, Jim was able to SIZE-UP a plan and respond to the plan as though it mattered – because at that moment removing the string from his view mattered to him.

Once anyone goes through the learning curve with the CPR+R2Process, and becomes unconsciously competent with it, they will discover that no matter the gravity of the situation, their “business firefighting” skills are allowing them to make better decisions.  Following this disciplined approach to any task, occupation, profession, or position will bring greater success, with continuously improving outcomes.

About the Author:

Tom Pandola is a Leadership Trainer and Consultant delivering real word leadership principles to individuals, business teams and organizations. After 25 years with the LAFD and serving as a captain and battalion chief, Tom moved on to business leadership positions and discovered how the same principles that allowed him to successfully lead others to navigate the dangers and challenges of firefighting and rescue operations, also produces success in everyday business.

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