Certain to Win: The Strategy of John Boyd, Applied to Business [Book Review]

USAF Colonel John Boyd was constant explorer, thinker, and doer (some say he was a rogue, but he did get things done). He influenced the tactical thought and critical decision making process of fighter pilots to “outmaneuver the enemy” during air combat operations. Boyd’s ideas can apply to everything from routine fire department productivity to high-risk, complex fire ground operations. Can his body of ideas be used for everything? Never. But they can be applied to most complex and rapidly changing situations.

Chet Richards was a close associate of the late Colonel Boyd and a lecturer at the Air War College and the Army’s Command and General Staff College. In Certain to Win, he introduces Boyd’s philosophy of conflict by examining how it works in the military arena as well as the business world. He puts forward that organizations, including fire departments, work best when they have clear visions, well-practiced skills, and implicit trust. Richards uses examples from military minds of Sun Zu, Musashi, von Clausewitz, Rommel, Patton, and Boyd seasoned with the organizational accomplishments of Toyota and Southwest Airlines to show how commonly held goals allow each unit of the organization to make decisions that continuously moves them toward the goal.

Why the title, Certain to Win? Sun Zu answers that here: If a general who heeds my strategy is employed, he is certain to win.

This is an excellent read for anyone looking to expand their knowledge on situational awareness, communication, decision making, teamwork, or leadership.

Rapid Intervention Roundtable at HEAT Conference 2012

Photo by Tim Olk

2012 South Florida HEAT Conference

Hosted by the Fire Training Officers of the Palm Beaches

Rapid Intervention Realities Roundtable

The sound of “Mayday, Mayday” heard over the radio will bring a sense of uneasiness and urgency to everyone on the fire ground. One of our own is in trouble. Is your fire department ready to manage an incident where firefighters transmit a Mayday?

Where does your fire department stand with rapid intervention team (RIT) operations? Many changes have taken place since RIT was first introduced, but how has your fire department RIT operation changed? Do you have RIT policies and procedures that are accepted and used? Do you provide realistic training for firefighter assist and survival? Do you have adequate staffing and resources, and relationships with other response agencies that will assist you with your RIT operations? Is your command staff ready to manage the risk and make the decisions to successfully control a Mayday incident?

District Chief Billy Schmidt (PBCFR) will host a roundtable chat on rapid intervention realities across Palm Beach County. Members of the Rapid Intervention Group will discuss RIT policies and procedures, practices, staffing and resources, and command and control. The Group will share its mission and intent to help fire departments in Palm Beach County raise the awareness of prevention, heighten the state of readiness, and strengthen the level of rapid intervention response.

Come and listen as they discuss their research into the following:

  • The impact of NFPA 1407
  • How to prevent unsafe conditions that may cause firefighters to become lost, trapped or injured on the fire ground
  • How to build knowledgeable, well-trained Rapid Intervention Teams
  • How to get Command and RIT working on the same page
  • How to get a fire department ready to respond to the unthinkable: A Mayday

The Rapid Intervention Group includes members from most Palm Beach County Fire Departments and is working to develop a fully comprehensive rapid intervention program through a collaborative partnership and a solution-centered approach that focuses on “fire-ground firefighter safety” as the highest priority.

Streetlights and Shadows: 10 claims about how we think.

How do people think in shadowy conditions where ambiguity rises and situations change rapidly? Klein believes that many of us have set beliefs on how to perform is these situations. Beliefs that may not be accurate. He has identified 10 claims that may mislead us into believing that we are thinking more effectively.

Following are the 10 claims that Klein uses to build his book. What are your opinions to each claim? You may be surprised with his answers.

1. Teaching people procedures helps them perform tasks more skillfully.
2. Decision biases distort our thinking.
2a. Successful decision makers rely on logic and statistics instead of intuition.
3. To make a decision, generate several options and compare them to pick the best one.
4. we can reduce uncertainty by gathering more information.
5. It’s bad to jump to conclusions – wait to see all the evidence.
6. To get people to learn, give them feedback on the consequences of their actions.
7. To make sense of a situation, we draw inferences from the data.
8. The starting point for any project is to get a clear description of the goal.
9. Our plans will succeed more often if we ID the biggest risks and find ways to eliminate them.
10. Leaders can create common ground by assigning roles and setting ground rules in advance.

What I'm Reading Right Now – Streetlights and Shadows

Photo by Tim Olk

I am researching decision making to prepare for my next Firefighter-360 columns. I have read other books and several articles by Gary Klein about how people make decisions and cognitive task analysis. I find it interesting, and maybe the most important area for improvement in the fire service. We need to get better at “bringing thinking to action.”

Do we make decisions with our gut or should we analyze every option? It depends! Klein offers realistic ideas about real-life situations.

The book begins with this story:

A policeman saw a drunk searching for something under a streetlight. “What have you lost, my friend?” the policeman asked. “My keys,” said the drunk. The policeman then helped the drunk look  and finally asked him: “Where exactly did you drop them?” “Over there, ” responded the drunk, pointing toward a dark alley. The policeman then asked: “Why are you looking here?” The drunk immediately replied, “Because the light is so much brighter here.”

Decision Making in Critical Situations

My September 2011 column at Fire Rescue Magazine on FirefighterNation:

Decision-Making on the Fireground

Understanding how decisions are made is the first step in improving their effectiveness


Critical situations require quick, deliberate and goal-oriented thinking.

Critical situations require quick, deliberate and goal-oriented thinking.


By Billy Schmidt
Published Friday, September 16, 2011

It was early in the morning and we were responding to a fire in a heavily occupied apartment building. Dispatch had received several phone calls indicating that people were still trying to get out of their apartments. I was the officer sitting in the right front seat of Engine 33, where I could see the black column of smoke rising in the distance. I started thinking about the building we were responding to and what we were going to do when we got there.

Read the rest of the column here.

More of Billy Schmidt’s Firefighting-360 Column at FirefighterNation.

Decision by Data

We seem to place a lot of importance on data (numbers, charts, graphs, etc.) these days. We tend make many decisions by comparing numbers and graphs from spreadsheets or charts. We ask ourselves, “What does it show me today?” Or sometimes, we look for what we want it to show us. We ask the data to help us prove our point.

Is data enough to tell us what’s going on, or what may happen? What do the numbers really mean? What do the charts and graphs really show? Should we just make our decisions based on data?

There may be more than meets the eye when it comes to numbers, pie charts or graphs. We should always step back and take another look at the intent and purpose of the data we are gathering. Following are a few good questions from the Root Cause Analysis Blog to help keep us on track when using data in our decision-making equation:

  • Where did the numbers come from?
  • What were the numbers originally designed to measure?
  • Are these numbers the same set of behaviors and tasks or are they independent?
  • Were the numbers created with limited bias and not driven by a reward or discipline factor?
  • Are these numbers occurring frequently or is this intermittent and infrequent data?
  • Finally, do you understand your numbers and does the boss know what the numbers mean when you show the charts and trends or lack of trends?

Using data can help us make more effective and efficient decisions, but the quality of those decisions is based on the first step: defining the problem to be solved. Data helps us ask the right questions; it does not provide the answers. We should use data for what it is, a part of the decision-making equation combined with listening to the input from the people on the front lines, the most important part of the decision equation.

Making decisions based on data is very common for all of us. But does the data tell us everything? Does the data show all of the variables or impact on the organization, process, or our people? What is our purpose for collecting the data and how do we intend to use it? How do we conclude that the decisions made were effective and efficient for the people, the organization, and our purpose?

Of Related Interest:

Are you in an Information Bubble?

We are exposed to lots of information today that can either challenge or broaden our worldview. Listen to Eli Pariser explain how information is tailored to each of us and the dangerous unintended consequences that go with it: we get trapped in a “filter bubble” and don’t get exposed to new information.

Rapid Decision Making: Coup d’oeil (intuition) helps answer “What to do?”

Coup d’oeil, or intuition, is the commander’s ability to recognize the truth of the situation, or in other words, a very high level of situational awareness (What’s the story here? What can I do?). How do we make decisions in complex and dangerous environments, such as the one in the video below of a building on fire with occupants still inside?

I offer the following 3 takeaways to consider when viewing the story below:

1.      Making critical decisions depends on 4 factors: information, experience, knowledge, and urgency (there’s no doubt that the sense of urgency found in this situation (people trapped on the second floor of a building on fire)) is the important link driving the question, “What do we do first?”

2.      Understanding and practicing sensemaking will help bring order to chaos. It all starts with noticing and [bracketing] the real problem (prioritizing), which will help guide the decision maker’s response to the situation. This sensemaking ability is acquired through previous work, training, and life experience.

3.      Training adaptive leaders to think clearly, to make better decisions, in dynamic and challenging environments will produce safer and more effective outcomes. Leaders must be able to think while performing: assessing the situation, scanning for information, dealing with individuals under stress (in this case, the firefighters, the trapped civilians, and the civilians on the street), and managing the multiple activities of a complex plan (what to do with what we have).

Watch this video of a building fire in Brooklyn, NY before the FDNY arrives. People are at the second floor windows, yelling for help with smoke venting around them.

With your fire department response and your firefighting crew, what would you do first? Note that even the bystanders on the street made a decision to do something; they carried a large mattress over for someone to jump onto. They used their intuition to make a decision of “what they could do with what they had.”

Video retrieved from STATter 911. Pre-arrival video: People waiting at windows at Brooklyn All-Hands.

Of Related Interest:

FireGroundWorks: Are You Ready?

Photo by Tim Olk

Is your fire department ready? Do you build well-trained firefighters into well-trained teams? Do you develop firefighters and teams that think and operate in complex environments? Have you prepared your fire department to be ready for anything, at anytime and at any intensity level? If not, then why not? What’s stopping you?

Dramatic changes in the world demand that the fire service be ready for anything. Several factors affect a fire department’s ability to be ready, and the right training strategy is crucial to addressing these new challenges.

The real question is: How do we train (condition) everyone to be ready for any situation, and to be more decisive, deliberate, and correct in their actions?

Firegroundworks was created to help fire departments get ready. FGW explores the fire service, studying, writing, and speaking on how firefighters think and how they behave, and finding ways to help them perform better. The focus is on adaptive leadership and sensemaking through situational awareness, rapid decision-making, task management, and teamwork. At the end of the day, technology is cool, but firefighters still need to bring thinking to action. It’s all about being ready, and that’s what FireGroundWorks is all about.

Are you Ready? Follow FireGroundWorks for articles, videos, podcasts, and links for readiness on the fire ground.

What is Sensemaking?

What is sensemaking, and how can it make a difference in our lives?

In our complex and fast-forward world, we are constantly challenged to make sense of our environment. Faced with unknowable and chaotic situations, we easily become immersed in trying to find out how this happened or who was responsible, in turn leading us to in-action.

Leaders in high-risk organizations such as firefighting, medicine, law enforcement, and the military are often confronted with making sense of dangerous, highly ambiguous, and rapidly changing environments. While most leadership research is focused on more stable conditions that promote time-challenged theories, sensemaking is a way to quickly and effectively materialize meaning to inform and act on.

Sensemaking provides a grounded process that enables leaders to perform effectively during extreme events. It is not just a decision-making tool, but a way to open our eyes and reframe a situation into a question of meaning. Themes related to trust, situational awareness, agility, knowledge, and high-reliability highlight the collective sensemaking process that brings sense back into an ambiguous situation. Sensemaking organizes ambiguity.

Making sense out of our experience in the world is a compelling task. Most of us are just trying to answer two simple questions, “What’s the story here?” and “Now what?” Sensemaking has been around since the early 1970’s and the research has produced several applications, including organizational, educational and social approaches. The study of sensemaking has even lead to the creation of changemaking, but that’s for a later discussion.

The focus of my study is on the use of sensemaking to become better leaders in complex and chaotic environments. Follow me as I explore sensemaking and how we can apply it to our leadership practices. I like to say that, “Good sense makes better sense than common sense.” Good Sensemaking may help us bring thinking to action, leading us to safer and better performance, and better outcomes.

Whether leading in high-stakes business operations or in dangerous environments, how do you make sense of challenging situations?

Of Related Interest:

Where good ideas come from / TED: Ideas worth spreading

Humantific: Making sense of Cross-Disciplinary Innovation Now!

High-Reliability Organizing at Wildfire Lessons Learned Center