We talk about using friction to light a fire and create heat, which can be transformed into innovation. The question we’re often asked is what do you do when friction gets out of control and it looks like the whole building may go up in flames.

Usually, destructive friction can be managed and contained before it gets out of control. But once in awhile, organizations find themselves with a full-blown five-alarm crisis.

We can learn from those first responders who are on the lines putting out actual firestorms. This year, the wildfire situation in the Western US has been particularly challenging. At one point, it was estimated there were close to 40,000 people fighting fires from British Columbia through Washington, Oregon, and Southern California.

One of the largest fires, near Redding, CA, was started by a trailer that blew out a tire, with a spark from the rim igniting dry brush on the side of the road. Others were started by lightning or arson. Whatever the cause, the firefighting situations were all similar:

  • Fire was raging out of control, threatening lives and property.
  • The fires were fueled by years of drought, which made brush dry and easily burnt.
  • Hot temperatures and an extreme lack of humidity exacerbated the situation—at one point creating a tornado of flames, fed by winds, that prevented firefighters from attacking the blaze from the air.
  • Containing the fire required identifying where defensible lines could be set up and maintained.
  • The fire isn’t out when the flames go away—it may take as long as 6-9 months of oversight to make sure that no hot spots erupt into flames yet again.
  • Once the fire’s out, it’s time to understand the cause and to evaluate the effectiveness of the firefighting tactics.

How does this relate to destructive friction within organizations? Let’s look at these points one at a time:

  • How the fire started is not relevant while it’s being fought. That evaluation will happen afterwards. That means we shouldn’t jump to finding someone to blame for a destructive situation, but should first focus on turning down the heat.
  • Fires that rage out of control threaten everything around them. If a destructive situation isn’t resolved, the damage will not be limited to those involved with the initial disagreement. The fire can destroy relationships, reputations, and even put the whole organization at risk.
  • Years of drought make fires worse. Similarly, unresolved and hidden disagreements and conflicts are more likely to result in highly destructive situations in an organization.
  • Heat and dry air exacerbate the situation. And so do people who want to stand their ground and argue about the problem, as do those who make the situation worse by throwing their own grievances into the situation.
  • Defensible lines need to be maintained, which means not everything can be saved. There are times when individuals are so wound up in the destructive behavior that they become toxic to the organization if they continue to stay.
  • Hot spots can erupt for months to come. Just because a situation appears to have calmed down doesn’t mean that there aren’t still issues of contention below the surface. It’s better to watch for these potential hot spots and deal with them before they erupt into another full-blown crisis.
  • You need to understand what happened. Once things have settled down, it’s helpful to understand what caused the situation, as well as the effectiveness of your response. This is not to find a scapegoat to blame, but to capture learning so the organization can be more effective in the future. 

Keep in mind: While fires are a natural part of any ecosystem, in nature or in business, the most destructive fires are not a natural occurrence. We should expect minor flare-ups in the organization—it’s when they turn into major conflagrations that destruction occurs. Firefighters use controlled burns to set a defensible line and prevent, bigger, more disastrous firestorms.

What are you doing to prepare your organization to both prevent and fight fires as they occur?