In 2009, the United States Congress mandated development of a strategy to comprehensively address wildland fire management across the country. What is now known as the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy (Cohesive Strategy) rests on the premise that because wildland fires do not respect jurisdictional boundaries, our management of fire must involve collaborative effort and simultaneously address resilient landscapes, fire adapted communities, as well as safe and effective fire response.
In 2015, IAWF Executive Director, Mikel Robinson and I partnered to manage and facilitate the Nevada Wildland Fire Cohesive Strategy Summit. This was an effort designed to convene an inclusive stakeholder group to build familiarity with the Cohesive Strategy, create a stakeholder network, and identify tangible strategic actions for implementing the Cohesive Strategy in Nevada, both in the short and long term. The effort, sponsored by a consortium of federal, state and local agencies in Nevada brought stakeholders who, over a period of a few days, developed a strategy and established an oversight group to both act as an advisory body to guide the Summit’s action plan, ensure that the participants achieve their goals, and to monitor emerging topics through the Nevada Fire Board.
Working on the Nevada Cohesive Strategy Summit taught, or reminded me of, a number of leadership lessons for people hoping to lead collaborative change.
- Efforts like the Nevada Cohesive Strategy Summit are best organized by relatively small groups of people with “horsepower.” Not too small of course; too few people and the tasks of organizing become onerous. However, get too many people involved and the group gets unwieldy and the effort unfocused. An eight-person organizing committee made up of, among others, the State Forester, a Forest Supervisor, and the State Fire Management Officer for the Bureau of Land Management guided the Nevada effort.
- Successful collaborative efforts require a sparkplug. With funding from a federal grant, then State Forester Bob Roper led the Organizing Committee; providing the continuous push that was needed to get things done.
- Getting people to commit to a new idea or tool requires that they have opportunities to engage, to get involved, to discuss, to contribute. Organizers of events, like this summit, need to build into their process, both those opportunities as well as flexibility to allow people to put their stamp on the effort.
- For government agencies to be cohesive with one another, they must first be cohesive internally. If your agency’s vegetation management personnel do not first collaborate with your own fire people to achieve common goals, you will struggle mightily to collaborate with other agencies; at least in any meaningful way.
- Gatherings can help develop stakeholder networks and create opportunities for relationship building and networking that actually go well beyond the designed purpose or desired outcomes for an event. There’s no substitute for getting people together to collaborate.
- People are cynical about plans and initiatives and we are getting worse all the time. Consequently, organizers of events like the Nevada Cohesive Strategy Summit need to deliver the goods; producing sustained attention, effort, action, and progress. People have really high expectations these days; and producing results that will satisfy people takes much more than good intentions and a meeting.
- Leadership engagement throughout the Summit meant a lot to the participants. The Organizing Committee, made up of senior leaders, established themselves as a work group to address specific, overarching issues and to provide real-time, responsive decision-making. Key personnel from the Forest Service Regional Office, the State Forester’s Office, the BLM State Office as well as senior staff from non-governmental organizations and fire department Chief Officers stayed engaged, as participants, throughout the effort and the State Forester, the BLM State Director, the Regional Forester, and a member of the Governor’s cabinet addressed the group near the end of the event.
- People want to see all the right people there, and people will be less than satisfied should they perceive the absence of other stakeholders, particularly if important stakeholders are either unrepresented or underrepresented. Act quickly and decisively to engage stakeholders who were either absent or underrepresented.
- People are impatient and want to see results immediately. Start producing tangible action quickly. Take advantage of the engagement, energy, and commitment developed at a gathering. Engagement, energy, and commitment all recede with time and evaporate quickly if participants perceive delay. Communicate with participants to provide status checks in order to maintain a sense of both momentum and transparency.
- Treat work products from a collaborative effort as the foundation of strategic goals (specific, measurable accomplishments you intend to accomplish over time) for which assigned personnel will establish objectives (a plan or methodology for achieving the goal), to which agencies can assign resources, and against which progress can be measured.
- Treat the action items of collaborative efforts as evolving works-in-progress, and favor both quick action and immediate, tangible evidence of success over perfecting the recommended actions. Participants come out of well-conducted collaborative efforts with positive energy and momentum but that energy and momentum will recede with time; particularly if people are already skeptical about whether the effort will bring about real results. Favor “70% solutions” that people can see and get engaged in quickly over perfected solutions initiated after a drop-off in enthusiasm and an increase in cynicism.
I am a big fan of collaborative efforts and I believe that collaborative efforts can produce durable results to which people stay committed. However, collaborative efforts can also prove to be little more than feel good wastes of time without effective leadership that results in a well-focused effort with a single-minded dedication to producing results.
Mike DeGrosky is Chief of the Fire and Aviation Management Bureau for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, Division of Forestry, and 2016 Adjunct Instructor of the Year for the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences at Fort Hays State University, where he taught for the Department of Leadership Studies for 10 years. Follow Mike on Twitter @guidegroup or via LinkedIn.