The Heat Of the Moment: Sense-Making in the Midst of Crisis

So, a guy I know, tells a story about seeking, and obtaining clarity of vision for our work in change and leadership.  He claims that “things get clear when the house is on fire.”  Yes, I have seen people suddenly forget all about their differences and come together in the midst of a crisis.  But generally, that is not what happens.  

First, and I think foremost, is the notion that “things get clear when the house is on fire.” On this point, I’d have to disagree.  We get a clear signal of danger, and we get a shared sense of urgency.  Those factors do often lead to more rapid collective sense-making and decision-making.  But are we able to do a meaningful analysis in the moment of crisis, and choose a path to survival and success?

Not really.  In a time of crisis, two things happen.  Our ability to perceive and make sense of what’s happening is often significantly narrowed.  Then, the information we are using to make what may literally be life-and-death decisions, is often incomplete, inaccurate, and changing moment-to-moment.

For those unfamiliar with the story, read about the 1949 Mann Gulch forest fire in Montana.  Conditions changed, and past knowledge/experience failed.  The leader, in the very literal “heat of the moment” ordered a counter-intuitive tactic.  But his team refused his direction.  The leader survived.  Two lucky members ran but found a way out.  The rest relied on what they thought they knew- deliberately ignoring their leader- and died.  See especially, the points on pages 5, 7, and 9.

The real enemy of success is complacency.  We stop scanning for emerging disruptive forces.  We stop adapting to changing markets or technologies.  John Kotter teaches leaders to create and sustain a “sense of urgency.” Learn to be mindful and adaptive BEFORE the house burns down, and you’ll have a better chance of survival and success.

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