Extreme fire danger

When we're in the middle of a bad situation -- whether a short episode or a prolonged, multiyear, downward trend -- we can default to tried-and-true methods of thinking and reacting. But often it's just these methods that allow a small problem to grow.

Earlier this year, MIT's Sloan Management Review published a case study on how firefighters in New Mexico responded to a small grass fire that exploded into a major billion-dollar wildfire. The authors suggest that the first responders did not adequately analyze the early dangers or properly intervene in slowing the early momentum of the fire. From this case, the authors extrapolate important organizational lessons on what they call "dysfunctional momentum."

They start with three basic observations about dysfunctional momentum:

  1. People intimately involved in a situation may not focus on issues that seem minor (like smoldering embers).
  2. After dysfunctional momentum is recognized, the situation must be interrupted if the momentum is to be stopped early.
  3. "Situated humility" is needed -- the willingness to reach out to others for possible solutions. No one person can solve all problems.

The authors go on to describe practical ways for leaders to think about problems and relate to others in potentially explosive situations. Leaders and governing boards of theological schools have much to learn from this study, as we notice smoldering embers in our own institutions, address the quickly changing contexts of theological education, and provide the informed, measured leadership required for good governance.