BY C. V. “BUDDY” MARTINETTE JR.
Successful fire departments create their own future by concentrating on and anticipating issues that affect service delivery. This process involves members who seek out organizational problems and then develop innovative ways to solve them.
Nothing could make a chief’s job easier than an organization full of people who are constantly seeking out potential problems and fixing them before they become real “show stopper” issues. On the other hand, nothing can frustrate a chief more than when these same people seek out potential problems and then recommend solutions that don’t get to the root cause of the problem.
The problem for most decision makers in medium to large organizations is they don’t have time for intimate involvement in every issue and, therefore, must rely on others to do research and report the pros and cons of a particular recommendation. For most decision makers this process can be akin to walking through a mine field without a map: each step forward has the potential to end the journey or cripple the traveler. Even in the best scenario, the decision maker will be using a map of the mine field prepared by someone else, and that in itself is reason to have confidence the map was prepared correctly.
Nothing can get a new officer in more trouble than being asked to study and prepare a report on an evolving issue and not doing good research-perhaps not taking enough time to get all of the data or, worse yet, jumping to a premature conclusion as to the problem itself. It may be as simple as recommending a solution to a problem that creates another set of problems and, consequently, sends the organization spiraling into a paralyzed state. It could be as serious as the decision maker’s moving forward on a project and then finding out that the recommendation was grossly underfunded.
Even if some of you might relish watching the chief step on a land mine or two (and, by the way, some of us deserve that fate), this never helps your organization move in a positive direction. It is, therefore, always in the best interest of the organization, the members, and the customers who pay our salaries to solve problems in the most efficient and effective manner possible.
Many of our decision-making problems can be traced to several fundamental fallacies. The first is that very few firefighters are taught how to properly conduct research and report conclusions and recommendations. Second, if no established and approved method is used to solve problems, the results can vary and be as inconsistent as the perspectives of the people doing the research.
When I became a chief officer several years ago, I brought with me from my former department a research and reporting method called “Completed Staff Work,” a process developed by the City of Virginia Beach as a management tool to create consistent and reliable problem solving and subsequent recommendations. In a nutshell, it is a process that, when used correctly, does just what it says: It makes sure the people involved do the complete work of researching and considering all options before making recommendations.
The value of this process is immeasurable for the leader of an organization. Having confidence that your employees considered all aspects of an issue before making a recommendation drastically improves the success rate for the employee and the leader.
“COMPLETED STAFF WORK” PROCESS
Like any process, “Completed Staff Work” consists of a series of steps employees follow when researching an issue: identifying the issue and establishing a work process, collecting and analyzing the data, developing and assessing options, developing recommendations and drafting the report, obtaining decision maker approval, presenting to the approving body, implementing the approved decision, and follow-up.
Each of the steps contains several subsets of considerations. Followed in recommended order, they provide an organized and professional manner for developing and presenting the final report. Using a logical method in which one step builds on the other maintains focus on the issue and generates leader confidence that the final recommendation has been fully researched and all matters of relevance have been considered.
Identify Issue and Establish Work Process
Determine the scope of the issue. If there is a really good place to do a good job on project research, it is in the very beginning. Just like building a house, every good project starts with a good foundation. In the case of project research and reporting, this foundation is essential to making sure the researchers understand their responsibility and commitment to the process and that they stay focused on working to resolve the real problem.
The first step in your journey is to determine the scope of the issue being addressed. For instance, is the issue a far-reaching and broad organizational issue, or is the problem of narrow focus, perhaps involving only limited numbers of people or small workgroups?
This is a very important part of the process. Spend quality time here, and don’t be in a hurry! Problems will certainly arise if you think the issue is very narrowly focused and it just happens that the outcome affects more stakeholders than you anticipated. Even worse would be the scenario where the implementation of your work causes more problems than originally existed. If nothing else, taking time in the beginning to understand the complexity of the issue will give you a general idea of how difficult you can expect the process to be.
After determining how broad or narrow the issue is, consider the parameters of the issue. For instance, are there geographical issues that would preclude a timely resolution to the research? Other parameters, such as fiscal considerations, public relation issues, and deadlines for results, need to be considered as potential parameters under which your research will take place.
The next step in determining the scope of the issue would be to consider what the final product will look like. Is this a policy report or a suggested ordinance change, or will the results just form the basis of a final decision regarding a particular problem? Understanding what is needed should help you understand the true nature of the issue and whether it is a strategic or operational issue. That will tell you volumes about who the potential stakeholders are and the organizational commitment that will be necessary for you to get started.
- Develop a clear statement of the issue. Countless times I have seen a committee start out to resolve one issue and end up working on something completely different. In one case, I was part of a group that was supposed to develop a reduction-in-force policy and, instead, recommended which positions needed to be eliminated. As you can clearly see, the decision maker in this case wanted a policy that could be applied across the workforce; instead, the group jumped to the results of how the implementation would occur.
This happens to be a very big problem, because it is easy to jump to a perceived solution to a problem without developing and analyzing the data needed to support the decision. The danger is that you may occasionally be correct; however, more often than not, your solution will address something other than the real root cause of the problem. Although you may feel good about the fact that you saved time, the results of your work most likely will put the organization further behind.
For this reason, it is imperative that you start your effort with a clear statement of the issue. A statement focused on what is expected as an outcome is concise so the work doesn’t stray from its objective and more than anything else is easily understood. A concise statement focused on the outcome expected will help ensure that it doesn’t stray from its objective and will be easy to understand. An example of an unclear statement would be: “Resolve the fact that we have too many workers and must reduce the workforce.” A much clearer statement would be: “Develop a workforce-reduction policy using criteria that aligns with our vision, purpose, and values.”
As you can see, the first statement doesn’t lend itself to a very clear understanding of what the group is to accomplish. Does the decision maker want recommendations concerning reduction in existing programs or entire departments? Does the decision maker just want recommendations as to what specific positions to eliminate? In the second example, the statement is very clear about the outcome of the work. In essence, the person assigning this work is asking for a policy that uses consistent criteria formed by aligning the policy with the organization’s vision, purpose, and values.
The most advantageous part of developing a clear outcome statement is that the person assigned lead responsibility and the group members can resolve misunderstandings prior to any major work taking place. As work progresses and internal and external forces start pulling the group off target, it serves as a reminder of the group’s original mission.
- Identify decision makers. In all cases, you will need to consider the identify of the ultimate person(s) or group(s) that will make a decision regarding your recommendation-if the objective is an ordinance, for example, the City Council would be the decision maker. Likewise, if it is a recommendation to implement or change city policy, the city manager most likely would be the decision maker. This is very important, because there are threads that tie our organizations together, and each thread has a different set of expectations and needs.
The other important consideration for identifying the decision maker is that you will want to first consider the position and feelings of that person or group regarding the issue. For instance, political considerations or timing issues might make it difficult for a political body to approve your recommendation even if it is the best one under existing circumstances. Likewise, if the recommendation will be submitted to your bosses, you will want to consider the internal and external pressures that may impact them if they approve your final recommendations. In all cases, discuss the project with them early in the process so that all parties involved have a clear understanding of the issue, the statement of the issue, and the desired outcome.
- Clarify needs/expectations of the decision maker. Building on the previous work, it is now time to gain some specific information regarding the project needs and expectations of the decision maker. For example, is the statement of the issue in accordance with the decision maker’s expectations? Does it actually articulate what the group will be trying to accomplish, and are you heading down the right path?
Another important item to discuss with the decision maker is when the report is expected to be completed. Nothing frustrates a leader more than to be waiting on a group’s work longer than expected. Likewise, the project leader and the decision maker need to come to some realistic agreement as to how long the process is expected to take.
Finally, take time to discuss how “red flag” issues (those not anticipated by the project leader or decision maker prior to the start of the process) will be addressed. A good example would be finding out that the data collected are pointing toward an outcome that was not expected or is drastically different from previous thinking. Other examples could be changes in the fiscal or political landscape. More than anything else, as the project leader, you will want to know how much autonomy you will have to complete the project and how often the leader wants to be briefed on your progress.
I cannot emphasize enough the importance of this type of communication early in your project work. Many committees have done hours of work only to find out that they were working on the wrong thing. This situation is never good for anyone involved: The decision maker doesn’t get a good product, and the group members feel they have wasted their time and effort.
- Assign a lead responsibility. Although we would like to think that a very functional team can work without leadership, experience tells us that it isn’t always the case. Even mature and engaged teams need a designated leader, if for no other reason than to serve as a focal point for collecting and disseminating the group’s work.
Whatever your experience has been, it is always best to decide up front who will be the group issue leader-the person assigned responsibility for the project and the outcome of the group’s work. In addition, this person will make sure that the group completes its objectives and all deadlines are met.
This is also the point where the issue leader conveys to the group the level of responsibility and accountability the decision maker has bestowed on him to get the work completed. For example, it may be necessary for the group leader to delegate certain aspects of the project data collection; along with that, the group leader will need to know what authority he has to see that the work is carried out. At the very least, the group leader can clear up any misconceptions concerning the level of delegation the decision maker is comfortable giving out to get the project completed.
While this is not specifically an article on teamwork, and one would hope that all team members will complete their responsibilities, sometimes that isn’t the case. It is, therefore, incumbent on the group leader to hold people accountable for their assigned functions and duties.
- Set the timetable. At this point, you will have covered much of the background work necessary to start your project research. Like all successful projects, yours will need a timetable. It should include information about how your work will be scheduled to ultimately meet the deadline set by the decision maker and also meet any established benchmarks.
One easy way to do this is to write your projected beginning and ending deadlines on a board that separates them by date. From there you can take all of your project components and plug them in on the timeline based on how you feel the project will progress. Experience is the only good way to judge how long it will take to research and report on certain issues or problems. Refer back to your earlier discussions with the decision maker about how broad or narrow the focus of the issue is. That could give you some indication of the time that will be required. After a little practice with the process, you will be able to accurately estimate which projects are the most complex and will take the most time.
The final consideration for establishing a timetable is to consider whether the resolution of your issue will depend on another action or issue being resolved. I can remember a time when our department ran three project groups at the same time because multiple issues were tied together by common threads. A process like that takes much coordination and communication among groups. Using a set plan with timetables for completion gives all groups an opportunity to monitor their progress against the work of the other groups.
- Identify internal and external stakeholders. If you are lucky enough to have completed any strategic planning in your department, you surely will have spent some time identifying your organization’s customer groups. Project research also involves identifying the internal and external stakeholders that may be affected by the issue you are addressing. A look back at your customer groups will give you a head start in understanding who these key players will be.
When considering stakeholders, ask yourself not only who will be impacted by your work but also who can lend insight and expertise to your effort. By identifying the people who will be most affected and those who possess the technical knowledge and expertise needed, you will be a long way toward establishing key stakeholders and potentially those you may want represented on your project team.
This is also the point at which you will want to determine how political the work of the group may become. Keep in mind that council members, commissions, boards, and even community issue leaders may need to be included and recognized as stakeholders. I have seen many recommendations fail because egotistical political leaders felt they were left out of the process. Only you will be able to decide the level of participation you want these folks to have. The one thing I will caution you about is that no politicians or city managers want to be surprised, unless it is their birthday. If you are unsure, consider at least copying them on the group’s meeting minutes.
When deciding who should participate in your group, remember the old saying, “Right people in the right place with the right skills at the right time.” This is very powerful because, just like every successful team, your team will need a myriad of talents. Remember, you need not only thinkers but also folks who can write, format, do graphs, analyze data, sort materials, take minutes, and (last but not least) bring refreshments. Considering the various skill levels needed during the selection process will ensure that you get all aspects of the work completed in a professional manner.
You may also want to consider all levels of your organization, if multiple levels exist. I have found success in including members from the newest recruit to the oldest veteran. The other positive aspect of involving all levels of your organization is it helps facilitate the communication process throughout the organization.
- Identify the resources required. One of the final considerations of the work process includes identifying resources you will need to complete your work, such as keeping minutes of the group’s progress. Disseminating this information to organization members helps remove the first barrier to potential change, fear of the unknown. Be very leery if you are working on something and feel the need to keep it a secret. More times than not, something that cannot be released in the meeting minutes shouldn’t be brought up in that setting in the first place.
Another resource consideration is technology. Having people with technology skills is one thing; having the software to do what you need is quite another. Considering up front what you plan to accomplish with the data you collect later in the process may save your group valuable time and the negative consequences of losing project momentum.
- Determine the characteristics of the project. Do not confuse this with determining the scope of the issue completed earlier. Decide the characteristics of the project. Ask yourself, “When I finish my work, what will the project look like? Will it be a policy report, an administrative directive, or a presentation to the elected body?” It could even be as simple as a memo to inform the organization of a change in methods or guidelines.
Each type of report varies in the level of detail that will be given in the final presentation. That said, under no circumstances should you fail to do all the steps in the process and document them because of the type of report. Remember, “Completed Staff Work” is not so much about what the final report looks like as about the complete process and documentation used to get there.
Collect and Analyze Data
The process to accomplish successful “Completed Staff Work” is grounded in how well you research the data that will be used to make your decision. This is the point at which successful people make their decisions based on current actual and not perceived reality.
The importance of data collection and research to the success of your project cannot be understated. Data collection is the hard part of research and requires the utmost in discipline and tenacity. When involved in a group process, there are always people who will persistently push the group to just make the decision. Frequently, this follows the following form: “I don’t know why we are wasting our time here; the proper decision is as plain as day.”
The reason this part of the process is so hard is that we have a tendency to try and find an easy way to make our decision and then move on to the next problem of the day. Formulating opinions as to what is the right thing to do in any particular situation based on our perceptions often will prove counterproductive in realizing appropriate, long-term problem resolution.
Frequently, our perceptions regarding a situation are very different from the facts. This is primarily because we often don’t use facts to form the basis of our decisions. The other problem is that as we grow in our roles as leaders we develop prejudices regarding issues and tendencies to do things a certain way because that is the way we were successful on some other occasion. We should more appropriately be challenging ourselves to realize that most situations are not the same. The facts regarding any two situations are almost never the same; for that reason, we need to commit to the hard work of data collection.
Until you get to the final stages of a decision-making process, experience and intuition are your enemies. Use them only when time is the critical factor in the decision-making process or when all of the facts lead to two or more possible recommendations.
- Research data and information. The beginning of the data collection effort should start with basic inquiries related to the issue’s history and background. One effective method for accomplishing this type of detective work is to trace the issue back to its origin. Consider first interviewing all people who are currently or were previously affected by the issue.
Keep in mind that the information obtained through the interviews most likely will be based on the individuals’ perceptions of the issue. Your main focus is to work back to the origin of the issue looking for those nuggets of information grounded in fact.
Once you have developed a clear, accurate picture of the history of the problem, turn your attention to the “current reality” of the situation-a view of the situation that is not based on opinion and can be represented as fact. Write these facts down, and look very closely to see if any of them need additional research to quantify or raise additional questions.
Understanding the history of an issue and the current reality of your situation still leaves many unanswered questions. Looking over the information, look for gaps that may raise additional questions. Likewise, look for threads that tie the information together and make it whole. Ultimately, your goal is to question everything until you have all the information needed to form a complete picture of the issue.
- Involve stakeholders. Early in the research process, you spent time determining stakeholders. Some organizations call these stakeholders “customer groups” because of the link between them and the service delivery aspect of the work. More on customer groups a little later.
If you did a comprehensive job of identifying your stakeholders in Step One (and, more importantly, are using them to collect current reality data), they should already be intimately tied to your project. Now it’s time to consider how involved you want each of the stakeholders to be in the next phases of the process.
Some stakeholders can be used to participate in discussions and be a part of the formal group. Others can be used as technical experts to answer questions pertaining to all the data you discovered.
The idea here is not to waste people’s time but to gain the positive results of meaningful participation. Remember also to consider who will write the report and review the draft, if that is appropriate. At this point you should feel fairly comfortable that all of your stakeholders have been considered and have had time to participate and provide their input.
As indicated earlier, there are also influential people in your community called “community issue leaders.” These people may be involved in social causes or be informal leaders for issues that affect the community’s social life. In some cases, they may be heads of community civic organizations or leaders in your local Chamber of Commerce.
The bottom line is that if your project will affect the community, these folks are very important to the eventual implementation of your recommendation. Engaging them to assist in analyzing the research will give you a brief view of where they stand on the issue and whether you will have additional political problems implementing future recommendations. At the very least, you will have some idea of what side of the fence they will be on; therefore, you will be able to develop some “up front” damage control.
- Seek customer input. Although I am a firm believer that customers should be considered as stakeholders, the nature of your issue and the type of business you are in it may well make it difficult for you to use your customers as process stakeholders. This could be the situation if a high level of technical expertise is necessary to understand and resolve the issue.
If you haven’t engaged your customers at this point, consider if their input is appropriate. If customer input is appropriate, ask yourself what these customers want from this process and how you know they want it. Keep in mind that we are in the business of working for our customers and that allowing them input is critical to the eventual implementation of your recommendation. Depending on the issue, you may well have internal and external customers involved in the chain of service.
The bottom line to this stakeholder and customer group issue is that you need to spend quality time considering their position and thoughts prior to developing and accessing your options, because at that point you will be committed and well past the point of no return.
The bulk of all your data collection should be written and documented regardless of the eventual presentation. I can tell you from experience that a detailed understanding of the facts as outlined and presented in Step Two of this process helps explain the methods, procedures, and history necessary to help the decision maker understand the full scope of your ultimate recommendation.
Develop and Assess Options
Using all of the information you obtained in Step Two should have provided you with a fairly clear picture of the issue. From there it should be easy to see what the root causes of the issue are and any disconnects keeping you from getting to your desired outcome.
Caution is suggested at this point: Often, people will collect all of the information on the issue and then recommend their original perceived solution. All of your options, no matter how many recommended, should be a direct result of the data you collected and not be influenced by emotion or your prejudices.
Note: The most effective way to analyze your current reality information is with a problem-solving and management tool called “gap analysis,” which you would use to develop alternatives by identifying the “gap” between where you currently reside (current reality) and the end result of where you want to be, represented as desired outcome. The answer to the issue or problem will be in recommendations that fill this gap and will allow you to get from current reality to the desired outcome. Gap analysis will be discussed in detail in a future article.
- Using criteria to develop a final recommendation. One of the best things about using the “Completed Staff Work” model is that the consistent factors you discuss in effect become the criteria by which you can evaluate options. As an example, a criteria filter uses such issues as cost; budget impacts; political considerations; and alignment with department vision, purpose, and values, as well as many other criteria, to mathematically determine the best option.
This is done by first determining your criteria and then rating it as some percentage of 100 percent, depending on its relative importance when compared with the other criteria. Then using a standard 1, 3, and 5 scale, with 1 being worst and 5 being best, you can set up your formula to calculate the total based on the value you assigned the criterion and the percentage you established for its relative importance.
Using this approach to prioritization is important because it creates consistency and alignment. As an example, the project team may decide to use the weighted areas to evaluate recommendations such as customer safety, political reality, and personal safety. The percentages applied to customer safety will be 25% out of a total value of 100%; political reality will be 15%; and personal safety 40%. Determine the percentage assignments up front because, when comparing recommendations, you want members to use the same criteria weights even if they have a different opinion regarding the relative value of the criteria.
Problems can occur if individual members value criteria differently and, therefore, assign different percentages to the same criteria. When this happens, there is incongruence in the weight of the criteria between members; this causes confusion and inconsistency. It is not that they don’t value the same things; they just don’t see eye to eye, which equals confusion and frustration and sometimes even the perception of misconduct and manipulation on the part of the project members.
When all the options are run through the filter, you will have one option that, based on the weighted criteria, is the best recommendation. Others options, though feasible, are not as well recommended. The brilliance of this process is in the fact that you will be able to explain to the decision maker the criteria used in assessing the options and why a particular recommendation was made over any other included in your report.
The following criteria discussed in the remainder of this section should be considered the minimum element set to use when assessing your alternatives. Whether you go to the trouble of developing a weighted criteria filter should be based on the complexity of your project and the overall potential impact any particular recommendation would have on the organization.
- Develop cost options. The first criterion, and frequently the most disconcerting for fire chiefs, is cost-more specifically, what is the cost associated with the alternatives? For example, a recommendation may include buying a piece of equipment while others do not. Often, alternatives come with varying levels of cost, depending on a variety of circumstances.
Each alternative will normally carry with it a potential cost to the organization. Whether your final recommendation involves equipment, facilities, or personnel, it usually represents a potential cost to the organization. Even policy changes frequently entail costs; knowing that upfront is important to the decision maker.
The cost of an alternative can cause a decision maker to be led astray. Some folks consider the best alternative the one that doesn’t cost anything, especially if the organization is strapped for money. Just keep in mind that your task is to make the best recommendation based on the criteria you used to rank the alternatives. Cost in and of itself should never be the lone criterion used to make the decision. If you are the project leader and the best alternative costs money, that is not your fault. Your efforts will be rewarded when you can demonstrate to the decision maker the overall rationale for the decision.
A word of caution is appropriate here. As the decision maker, it is unnerving to approve something and then find out costs have been underestimated. I am not referring to issues beyond the project leader’s control, but to those where not enough study was conducted to determine the full scope of the cost of implementation. Keep in mind that the whole purpose of this exercise is to do “Completed Staff Work,” which means you have fully addressed all of these areas.
- Consider budget impacts. A little different from the cost options of a particular alternative is the effect it will have on your current and future budgets. Here, we are referring to the overall implication of the alternative, not the specifics of its cost.
To understand this, you must appreciate that the decision maker is much more critical of recommendations that carry a recurring cost. Recurring costs are the budget impacts of the decisions that will appear year after year.
It is especially important to consider this recurring impact with regard to monetary fixes for problems that involve hiring personnel, because as personnel gain in seniority and receive cost-of-living adjustments, not only do costs recur each year, but they could escalate well beyond the organization’s ability to fund the recommendation over time.
- Consider policy impacts. A very important consideration is how the alternatives mesh with current policy. The last thing you want to do is start one of those domino problems because your recommendation doesn’t mesh with existing policy.
With regard to policy, the best analogy is to visualize your recommendation as a balloon filled with air. When you push on a balloon filled with air, you displace a volume on one side with your finger only to have that volume show up somewhere else on the balloon.
Your job is to anticipate where the bulge will be and determine the effect it is going to have on the rest of the organization. Ultimately, make sure policy problems are addressed prior to (or as a part of) the overall recommendation.
- Consider noncost impacts. Noncost impacts with regard to “Completed Staff Work” can involve any number of things. You need to consider the amount of change your organization can tolerate at one time as well as the prevailing culture.
As indicated in the discussion about criteria filters, political considerations are a big factor for the decision maker. Determine if the political timing is correct and if the decision maker has the political power or will to see the recommendation through to successful implementation.
Also consider the overall effects of politics in assessing your options. If you did a good job evaluating your “enablers” and “restrainers” (actions that help you move toward your goal and those that hinder you from achieving your goal, respectively) earlier in the “gap analysis,” you will have a good idea of where potential political problems could arise. That said, politics in local government is a funny process that sometimes defies explanation. Don’t be surprised if for some strange reason even the best recommendations-those that make the most sense-don’t get approved because of politics. (More on this subject later.)
- Consider public relations and marketing aspects. If your recommendation is going to have any effect on internal or external customers, good or bad, consider public relations. Making sure all stakeholders understand the need for implementing your recommendation is one of the keys to success. Open and honest communication is vital in public relations.
One of the critical things a decision maker wants to know is how the recommendation will be viewed by whomever it affects. Make certain that you have considered these issues; at the very least, alert the decision makers of any potential public relations issues.
Closely associated with public relations is marketing. In this case, successfully market your recommendation by using a defined communication process and your key stakeholders to spread the word about why the recommendation is the best for the organization.
I have always felt it was in my best interest to float an idea out in the organization and then wait to take its temperature. The temperature in this case reflects the overall feeling of the organization and determines who the potential sabotaging members are (if any). Identifying these folks up front will allow you to do some intense lobbying prior to releasing the report. This action will save the decision maker a lot of headaches down the road.
Recommendations and Draft Report
At this point, you will have run your alternatives through the filter and considered all of the issues involving assessing the best option. You are now ready to start the final process of making a specific recommendation.
- Seek consensus of stakeholders on recommendations. There comes a time in all committee processes when the group needs to line up behind a particular recommendation. Evaluating all of the facts using the information gathered in Steps One through Three, the group must come to some sort of consensus on what the final recommendation will be.
Obviously, not all group members will agree in all cases. You would hope that this would be the case after all of your work and effort, but inevitably some members will view the value of the recommendation by the way it affects them personally, not by whether it is in the best interests of the organization.
If you are the project leader or even a member of the group, hold these members accountable by reminding them of your desired outcome statement. As leadership guru Stephen Covey has said, “Look at who is in the frame.” Those members of your group who can see only themselves in the frame will never agree to a recommendation that doesn’t serve their interests.
- Select the best option. Your criteria should have guided you to the best option. Now it is only a formality to review the facts and draft your report. That said, take the time to go back and review your current reality information (the data) and make certain your final recommendation is based on facts and gets you to your desired outcome. The focus should be on how well the recommendation answers the organization’s issue and serves the best interest of your customers.
- Resolve conflicts. Conflict resolution at this point should be minimal; however, certain members might not agree with the “best option” selection. In this case, see if there is a solution or compromise that addresses everyone’s concerns and still provides the desired outcome.
In really bad cases of conflict, project team members can take on the role of distracter or restrainer. Others may become “bullies” who up to this point were fine, but now they are angry because they see that things are not going their way. You may also encounter pressure exerted on team members by ranking officers of the group who use their position to influence others.
If you have members who, with the best interest of the organization in mind, just prefer one recommendation over the other, let them know it is okay to disagree but not to be disagreeable. This sort of situation doesn’t normally occur; but if it does, give all members time to voice their opinion, and then use the criteria filter to further guide the consensus process.
Just be aware that even with your best efforts at damage control, dissenting members may try to sabotage your efforts. The best tactic in this case is always open, honest communication-lots of it. Don’t let a communication vacuum be filled by a disgruntled team member who didn’t get his way.
On the other hand, legitimate conflicts can arise when members find that the data are incorrect or a mistake was made in calculating the final results. In this situation, a full review and potential modification of the recommendation may be necessary. Make sure the incorrect findings are legitimate and not just a smokescreen put in place by distracters.
- Consider presentation method. It is now time to consider the most effective manner in which to present your report. Here, a little homework on the part of the group members regarding the decision maker’s learning style can mean the difference between success and failure of the recommendation.
When choosing your presentation method, consider how you are viewed by the decision maker. If you are a trusted and proven employee, you may only have to provide a bulleted list of information. If the decision maker is not familiar with you and your issue, consider the most appropriate way to fill in the information gap.
Whatever you do, don’t make the mistake of giving loads of data and graphs to a decision maker who wants only an executive summary. Likewise, don’t shortchange a decision maker who likes to get into the facts and determine how you reached your conclusion.
Not only will you want to give some thought to how much information the decision maker gets, but you will also want to decide the form in which that information will be provided. Some people like the full report along with an electronic presentation that highlights the important points. This way, if questions arise from the presentation, they can go back to the report for more information.
Consider also how “visual” the decision maker is when it comes to comprehending information. For some folks, charts, graphs, and maps are the ticket. Others could care less about this flashy stuff and just want the facts.
You should always consider the following in your presentation. No decision maker only moderately concerned about your issue wants to be read to or suffer through a boring presentation. There is nothing wrong with asking the decision maker(s) which type of presentation they prefer so you can be certain that you get the most out of the decision maker’s time.
All things considered, I have found it is always best to give the decision maker a report even if you do not expect it to be read. Many times a trusting decision maker will never review your reams of information; however, that shouldn’t preclude you from providing it as a resource in case there is a question later.
Finally, make sure your formatting is professional and all the words are spelled correctly. Nothing can ruin a presentation like misspelled or misused words.
- Draft the report. Your final piece of work will come in the form of a report. This report will speak to your professionalism and to the quality of your group’s work. Make certain it is a quality work and represents everything you want it to be before it is handed off for review.
Along with the appearance of the report, make certain the report is complete and, above all, accurate. With regard to context and clarity, your goal should be to produce a report that any casual, or even uninformed, reader will understand. Ask yourself if you were the decision maker, would you sign off on the research and recommendations included? If your answer is yes, you are ready to release the draft for review.
- Circulate your draft report for feedback. Up to this point, you have hopefully done a great job of communicating about your work throughout the organization. It is now time to pick out a select group of stakeholders for a more in-depth review of your document. Consider including in the review process some people who have an in-depth knowledge of your issue and also some who don’t have such a depth of knowledge. In this way, different viewpoints will be represented and there’s a better chance of detecting something you may have overlooked because you were so “close” to the issue.
Make absolutely sure you give your reviewers plenty of time to look over the document and provide you with feedback. Don’t rush this part of the process, because more than anything else you want the feedback to be meaningful and to lend professionalism and accuracy to your final product.
When you receive the feedback, give it honest consideration, even if it is critical. Make sure you address deficiencies when mistakes are brought to your attention. Don’t be one of those folks who asks for an opinion but really doesn’t want it unless it is what you expected it to be in the first place.
Once you have made all corrections and considered the feedback, have all project members sign the report. Group members’ signatures is the “seal of approval” you give the decision maker that this is truly “Completed Staff Work” and the results are the best possible at the time.
Obtain Decision Maker Approval
It is now ‘’show time” for your project, and this is where all of your hard work starts to pay off. The report is professionally put together; all that is left is the formality of the presentation. This is the scheduled time you have set aside for your group, or the group’s project leader, to give the report/presentation you determined would be appropriate for the decision maker.
As I indicated earlier, now is not the time to begin thinking about the presentation. Your previous homework relative to the decision maker’s learning style should already have been matched with the correct presentation method.
Some decision makers like a brief in-person overview that details the finer points of the project and the rationale for the recommendation. This might include a cover page or an executive summary of the report, which covers the main points in a timely manner.
If your decision maker learns visually, your options are wide and varied. PowerPoint® slides are popular these days, but use the tried and true overhead transparencies if you are comfortable using them. The point is, you need to be comfortable with the medium if you are going to stand any chance of convincing the decision maker that your report recommendation is worth his approval.
If using electronic media for your presentation, make sure you show up early to ensure that everything is correctly functioning. Prepare for the presentation by delivering it before your staff or another group before the “big show.”
- Alert decision maker to potential unresolved conflicts. Although most likely not a part of your final report, there may be times when you will have unresolved conflicts. This is especially true if you are dealing with a controversial subject or the affected persons are going to resist changes the recommendation will bring.
As a decision maker, I always appreciate when my folks tell me if things could get rough. Don’t set me up by painting a rosy picture so I respond favorably, only to find out later there is unrest or even resentment regarding the recommendation.
Alert the decision maker relative to who is happy with the report and who is not happy with it, and why. The decision maker will also want to know to what degree the affected stakeholders will support the recommendation. Consider also advising the decision maker of any minority opinion, even when the recommendation is overwhelmingly supported.
More importantly, advise the decision maker of any political strategies you used to seek input and formulate your report and of any recommendations you have regarding the political strategies you feel will help ensure successful implementation of the recommendation.
- Determine Council involvement. In my city we have a City Council. You may have a County Board of Supervisors or a strong mayor. Whichever the case, you must consider whether the report needs to go to the elected governing body for approval. Most of the time, this issue would already have been determined by this time because of the nature of the final product; however, your boss may want the elected body made aware of the report as a matter of courtesy.
Present to Council (if appropriate)
If the report is to go to the next level, consider the presentation approach just as you did for the decision maker. Just remember, the higher you go, the higher the stakes are for your department, your boss, and your potential individual future.
- Determine the best presentation method. From this point on, the discussion concerning the presentation has less to do with what the product looks like than how it can best be communicated. The process used will depend on the complexity, seriousness, or perhaps the political potential of the recommendation.
Dealing with multiple learning styles can be challenging. Often, you can be successful by presenting the information so that the visual folks get the gist of the situation, but don’t make it so visual that the “analyzers” in the audience are put off by the whole thing. As noted earlier, it is always better to provide the full report even if the decision makers don’t take the time to read it.
Another important note concerning political decision makers is that they are often overwhelmed with written information that can be very technical in nature. As a rule of thumb, a political decision maker needs to know only enough about your work to be able to explain to constituents how their tax money is being spent.
- Position the product. Selling any good idea is more than just good research. In fact, even if the research is the best in the world, a bad presentation could prevent the decision makers from becoming engaged. They may come to see the whole matter merely as something they have to survive. Getting them excited about the potential of the research so they can accomplish some mutual goal is dependent on how the product is positioned prior to the presentation.
A little informal “setting of the stage” is necessary at this time in the process. Consider meeting with council members individually or in groups of one or two, depending on their ideology or political persuasion. Never attempt to set the stage with two Council members who see things differently or espouse opposite points of view most of the time. Also, remember that government officials are restricted by rules and regulations pertaining to the number of officials that can attend informal and formal staff presentations at a given time. In my city, for example, if more than two council members are together at any given time, they cannot conduct any city business.
Usually, it is best to frame informal discussions aimed at selling the product to elected officials around two aspects. Always look to expand on the aspect of how good the recommendation will make the elected officials look to their constituents. If many unresolved conflicts or areas that could result in political backlash remain, alert them to this as well. One thing to remember here is not to be afraid that the recommendation may cause political unrest. All change causes some unrest. Just make certain your elected officials aren’t blindsided by stakeholders who want to sabotage your work and, subsequently, make the officials look bad in the process.
- Publish report and make presentation. If you have properly done your work thus far, what happens as a result of your published work or the presentation(s) that results from it will come as no surprise. You have done your work, and the recommendation is aligned because of the criteria used to determine it was the best option. Stakeholders have been advised, conflicts were resolved and communicated, the stage has been set, and now all that is needed is a Council decision in your favor.
- Obtain Council decision. Up to this point, you have done a tremendous amount of work to make sure your recommendation is in the best interest of all those involved. That is what this process is all about. What you have to keep in mind is that even if you conduct the entire process perfectly, there is still a chance that you won’t get a positive nod on the recommendation.
As an example, let’s say that Council Members 1 and 2 just battled with 4 and 5 over an issue unrelated to yours. Tempers flared, and a close vote along party lines split the group and left half of them upset at the other half’s vote.
Now, you come to give your presentation, and everything looks great, just like you envisioned during practice the night before. But, it’s just your luck that those on the winning side on the previous issue decide to get a little political mileage out of your presentation because they know it is great work and will eventually make them look good. They speak positively about you and your work before and after your presentation. Then comes commitment time, and you find that the support is clearly split along party lines-although this time the members supporting you find they are on the losing side.
The point to all this is twofold: If you have an option to move your presentation to a more favorable and less contentious day, do it. If that is not possible, then understand the decision had nothing to do with your work and everything to do with politics.
Implement Approved Decision
Regardless of the level at which an approved decision is made, this is not the time to rest on your laurels. Plenty of work still needs to be done to communicate the approved decision, distribute the report, and develop an implementation strategy.
Most of the time, a recommendation to make a change will cause some group of people to actually experience change. When this is the case, you will want to ensure your final report is communicated to those involved stakeholders. Just as you have done during the entire process, make sure all participants and stakeholders are briefed on the next steps in implementing the action.
- Determine implementation strategy. This is the point where you should go back and review the many previous steps involved in your process to see how many of them will be helpful in developing a strategy for implementing your recommendation. I assure you I am not trying to get you to conduct this process all over again. However, it may be worth considering certain steps in the process if implementation is going to be complex or involve multiple levels of your organization. Make absolutely certain at this point that your project doesn’t fail because you didn’t give any forethought to how it would be implemented.
- What “hand offs” need to occur? In all processes, it is unlikely the issue manager is going to be able to perform all of the steps of the implementation process. In these situations, it is appropriate to hand off certain tasks and responsibilities to people who can aid in the process. Be very careful when handing off functions that may be crucial to the implementation success. In all cases, make sure that the delegated tasks are accompanied by specific instructions and clearly outlined expectations.
If multiple agencies or personnel are involved in the implementation process, it is wise for the issue manager to maintain the lead role. Remember, the issue manager is the person most familiar with the project and the one with the greatest stake in successfully implementing the recommendation.
At the beginning of the process, we spent time discussing current reality and desired outcome. These concepts become even more critical now since the process must be evaluated for its intended outcome.
An all too familiar mistake is for the project leader to fade away and consider that the job is now complete. It is very important to keep in mind that approval for the recommendation is really just a step toward the desired outcome. The real test of the research and recommendation that follows is if it actually solves the problem by addressing its root cause.
- Monitor implementation. The project leader must be in a position to effectively monitor implementation activities. This may take the form of benchmarks that determine if progress is being made or just checking with stakeholders to make certain plans are progressing as expected.
- Evaluate implementation. Finally, the real benchmark of success will be if the recommendation solved the problem. This evaluation should involve a review of current reality to see if the desired outcome has been achieved.
A GUIDE TO RESOLVING ISSUES
In all occupations, the ability to effect positive change is derived from employees’ using methods that look at problems and then solve those problems for the betterment of internal and external customers. By solving the problem, I mean looking at the facts and then acting on them, leaving personal perceptions out of the problem-solving mix.
In the fire and EMS services, we usually discuss success as it relates to the first few minutes of an emergency situation. If we intervene in the situation in a positive manner during the critical first few minutes, we are generally successful. These types of situations require quick thinking, using mostly sketchy information and the cumulative experience acquired during similar situations.
“Completed Staff Work” is not a very effective tool for use during these types of situations; likewise, our fireground problem-solving methodologies are not the right tools when time is on our side. When we have time, and the stakes are high with regard to the organization’s future direction, there is no excuse for not thinking through and addressing an issue accurately and completely.
Using the “Completed Staff Work” model as a guide helps you make the right moves for your organization while cutting down on the inefficiency caused by poor decision making. That means not taking the shortcut but instead working through a process that looks at the entire issue, not just the parts you think are easy.
The future of our fire service depends on people willing to raise the professional bar, not lower it. Making decisions about our future is important, and firefighters who study the relevant issues that confront all of our organizations owe it to each other to make the right moves.
Try the “Completed Staff Work” process the next time you are assigned to resolve an issue within your organization. I think you will be pleased with the results, and so will your leadership. ■
C.V. “BUDDY” MARTINETTE JR. is chief of Lynchburg (VA) Fire & EMS, an instructor IV with the State of Virginia Department of Fire Programs, an Incident Support Team operations officer, a task force leader for Virginia Task Force II of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Urban Search and Rescue Program (US&R), and a FEMA rescue specialist instructor. He has a B.S. degree in fire administration from Hampton University and a master’s degree in public administration from Troy State University. He is a graduate of the National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer Program and has received the designation of Chief Fire Officer by the Commission on Chief Fire Officer Designation. Martinette is the author of Trench Rescue (Jones & Bartlett Publishing) and lectures nationally on specialized rescue operations and fire service leadership.