Strike a Match: Agile Improvisation in the Face of Disaster

Agility Consulting |

By Ben Baran, Agility Analytics Practice Leader

MatchOn August 5, 1949, a team of 15 smokejumpers parachuted into the Mann Gulch near the Missouri River in Montana to fight a fire that had started the previous day. At first appraisal, fighting the fire seemed a simple task. But thus began one of the worst disasters in the modern history of wildfire suppression in which all but two of the team members lost their lives.

Immortalized in Norman Maclean’s book Young Men and Fire[i], in the folk song Cold Missouri Waters by James Keelaghan and in famed organizational scholar Karl Weick’s scholarly analysis[ii], the incident is a tragic-yet-fascinating account of a team attempting to sense and respond to a rapidly evolving environment. It’s a story of improvisation, counter-intuitive action and collapsed team structures.

According to Maclean’s account, the team was beginning to evaluate the fire and plan an attack when the team leader, Wagner Dodge, saw that the wildfire had breached the valley and was approaching their direction rapidly. Quickly, the situation devolved into an all-out race to a rocky area at the top of the ridge, with flames chasing them at a rate of approximately 610 feet per minute.

That’s when Dodge took two actions that both highlight extreme moments of agility.

First, he ordered his men to drop their tools. Dodge realized that they needed to run faster if they were to have any chance of reaching the top, and that their heavy tools were slowing them down. But this is a strange order to give a group of experienced firefighters—it’s like telling a group of Marines to throw down their rifles.

Second, moments later, he took out a match, struck it and threw it into the waist-high dry grass around him. As his own personal fire grew around him, he ordered his men to lie down with him in the area he scorched. None of them did.

Consider the magnitude of creativity Dodge displayed in these moments: (1) casting away his tools, the very physical representations of being a firefighter and (2) starting a fire and climbing into it, when the entire purpose of firefighting is to extinguish flames while avoiding direct contact if possible.

Dodge arose later from the ashes that had provided a barrier between him and the wall of flame that swept the hillside. He soon learned that only he and one other team member survived. All 13 others died.

This story has numerous lessons, one of which is the value of agile improvisation. Dodge quickly realized that the environment had changed and took novel, dramatic steps to survive.

The story also highlights the value in continually sensing and monitoring one’s environment for subtle signs of danger. Such processes that support anticipating change involve the use of analytics, which is all about making sense of what’s going on, organizing that information and using it to respond appropriately.

How does an organization systematically sense and monitor its environment? We’ve found that it’s through consistently measuring what’s important from every corner of the system, gathering insights from employees across levels, functions and geographies. It’s about establishing an attitude of questioning assumptions and the status quo, making it OK for people to voice ideas and even dissent.

Our Organizational Agility Profile™ establishes such a framework because it involves both qualitative data collection in the form of interviews and open-ended survey questions and quantitative data collection in the form of employee ratings on all aspects of The Agile Model®. Data gleaned through this process result in clear action areas that the organization can address to build agility.

Agile organizations aren’t error-free. They’re organizations that have embedded the ability to notice small deviations and deal with them quickly. And formal systems for sensing and monitoring set the foundation for such noticing to occur. Coupled with agile responses—like Dodge’s burning match—organizations can begin to thrive in spite of the turbulence around them.

[i] Norman Maclean, Young Men and Fire (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).

[ii] Karl E. Weick, “The Collapse of Sensemaking in Organizations: The Mann Gulch Disaster,” Administrative Science Quarterly 38, no. 4 (December 1993): 628, doi:10.2307/2393339.

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