Maximizing Problem-Solving Success

By Richard Marinucci

Problem solving is an art form. By that, I mean that all individuals are able to develop their own methods and styles to address the never-ending number of challenges facing chief officers. There are basic principles that are part of all decision making, but individuals can stamp their own personality on their methodology. Problem solving is also a skill that can be practiced. There is an element of recognition prime decision making (RPDM) that comes into play – simply put, when faced with a problem, individuals scan their “hard drive” to look for a solution. This will be helpful, but only in conjunction with other sound practices.

For the most part, no two problems are exactly alike. There are different extenuating circumstances; different personalities; and variances in policies, rules, and regulations. These differences make it impossible to develop a “playbook” that would address every problem or even provide the same solution to problems that appear to be exact. It is important to understand this so that you can take the proper action. Some people don’t subscribe to this: They want “fairness” in dealing with problems. Some would like a very black-and-white approach to all issues. However, fairness does not mean equal treatment.

Problem-Solving Environment

Firefighters begin their careers following a strict regimen to learn the basics of firefighting. In recruit school, they are shown ways to wear self-contained breathing apparatus, pull hose, throw ladders, and all the other basics needed to be successful. They, hopefully, get the necessary repetition to be competent. As they begin their careers, they are assigned to a station or company and are given direction on what to do with little opportunity to deviate from procedures. As they begin their ascent through the ranks (sometimes beginning as a senior firefighter), they are then asked to address problems. Most of them are on the scene of an emergency. The actions are dictated by existing department procedures and the experience and education of the officer in charge.

There is a process to address problems on the emergency scene. There are protocols to address consistency, but there needs to be some flexibility also, as there can be nuances among seemingly similar events. Sometimes individuals and organizations can become too automatic in their approach and not take the best course of action. Good officers and incident commanders can evaluate information gathered through size-up and make not just any decision but the best decision.

Problems that occur outside the emergencies can be handled in a similar manner. There needs to be a process and established guidelines. The big difference is that most issues that occur outside of emergency events don’t need an immediate response. There is discretionary time. Within an established methodology to handle problems, individuals must take advantage of this and not rush into quick decisions without considering various options and outcomes. Hasty decision making has been the downfall of many in leadership positions. If you are not under a strict time constraint, take advantage of this opportunity.

Establishing some guidelines (protocols, if you like) helps to create the right environment. For example, you may want to consider looking at issues as they affect the community, the department, and then individuals. This could be considered somewhat of a simplistic approach, but it is still useful in beginning the process to look for the best possible outcome. Relating this back to emergencies, many incidents are simple to handle, so there is an opportunity to go for a very simple solution. Some nonemergency problems also can be quickly solved. But, there is value to establishing a system so that nothing is missed and you are developing good habits. To put it another way, organizations use an incident command system on all incidents so they develop good habits that they will use on incidents of all sizes. This same logic is appropriate for problem solving off the emergency scene.

Some Basic Steps in Problem Solving

Following are some basic steps to take when problem solving. First, recognize that there is a problem – the earlier you do this, the better. Occasionally, a problem may not appear to be an issue that needs attention; but if left unattended, small problems can grow and create bigger challenges. Leaders cannot put their heads in the sand and ignore problems in hopes that they will go away. (There are times that some problem solving can be delayed and the issues will resolve themselves, but this delay strategy should be a conscious decision.) If your instincts are acting up and you are the least bit suspicious that something is awry, investigate. If it turns out to be nothing, good. If it has potential, a smaller problem is better than one that has grown larger because it was not immediately recognized.

All incidents begin with a good size-up. This is also true in problem solving. You will begin to gather cues and clues that will help you, including all the facts, people involved, and specific issues. As is the case with emergencies, you will rarely have 100 percent of the information. You cannot always wait for more information before you act. But, as stated above, problem solving almost always allows you some discretionary time, so you don’t need to act immediately as you would in a true emergency. Still, your experience, education, training, and instincts will guide you – hence, the need for you to practice and prepare. As part of this process, you need to determine if it is your problem. Your role may be to provide direction to someone else to resolve the matter.

Having an established network of colleagues inside and outside of the fire service is an asset when addressing certain problems. When you are faced with an issue that is not something you frequently encounter, you may seek outside assistance. For example, many human resources directors handle personnel matters more often than you do, police department personnel do investigations on a regular basis, and attorneys are much better at handling legal issues. Work to build such relationships so that you will have the resources available when you need help. And don’t be too proud or shy to ask. The most important thing is to get the correct solution to the problem. Use whatever resources are available.

When looking at a problem, consider what you are looking for in the solution: There are legal, financial, and personnel matters to evaluate in addition to the need to maintain individual and organizational discipline. Solutions to problems don’t necessarily need to be punitive, but there are cases where such action is necessary for the overall betterment of the organization. The most basic and simple approach is to factor the mission statement of the department into the equation. Does the solution work toward the improvement of the organization while considering the impact on the individuals involved? The solution to problems must consider laws, rules, regulations, labor agreements, and past practices. Your individual opinion on a topic probably doesn’t matter: It gets trumped by these considerations.

The solution to a problem should not be the end of the matter: There is a need to continually evaluate the outcomes from the perspectives of how the matter will affect future challenges and if there is a need to adjust your solution based on additional facts and circumstances that have arisen. Even in the process of solving problems, there can be a time when you must admit that you need to make a change. Don’t be too stubborn and think you should stick with your original plan if a better way is revealed. You are human, and there are times to concede that you are also subject to human frailties.

Problems come in all sizes and complexities. Establishing a set of guiding principles that includes processes and practice will help in resolving issues. Practice is critical; it helps individuals to develop skills that ensure that the issue is properly evaluated, sufficient facts are gathered, and the best solution is chosen.

Finally, a solution may not end the matter. Evaluate the impact of the solution. You can improve your problem-solving skills through training, education, experience, and practice. They are skills that you can continually develop.

RICHARD MARINUCCI was a chief for more than 30 years. He is a speaker at FDIC International, a columnist for Fire Engineering and Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment, and the editor of the 7th edition of The Fire Chief’s Handbook. He is a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs and former chief operating officer of the U.S. Fire Administration. He is a faculty member at Eastern Michigan University. He has a master’s degree and three B.S. degrees. He is the executive director of the Fire Department Safety Officers Association.

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