2006 case study article by Fire Chief Richard Carrizzo and organizational change agent Kelly Gerling about organizational change at a fire department.
July 1, 2006 12:00 PM
By Richard Carrizzo & Kelly Gerling
Fire Chief Magazine
In the decades prior to the 1990s, the Southern Platte Fire Protection District was an all-volunteer fire department in the Kansas City area. Morale was high and the organizational culture was cooperative, due to the department's small size and the fact that the chief had been elected by the firefighters and officers. Rapid population growth within the 75-square-mile community served by the department, however, was increasing its workload.
Richard Carrizzo, who had joined the SPFPD as a volunteer firefighter in 1982, became its chief in 1993. A year later, the department began supplementing its staff with its first paid firefighters. By 2001, Carrizzo was leading a combination department of 34 volunteers and 12 career staff, but the growing workload and friction between the volunteer and career members were fostering an increasing number of complaints and a decline in morale.
Carrizzo observed that the original cooperative culture had deteriorated a noticeable degree. He and the department's two division chiefs and several officers set forth to identify the values shared by both volunteers and career staff and find a way to practice those values within the department to bring about a more cooperative organizational culture with higher morale.
They began with a series of meetings among themselves to define their department's values and to work on practicing them. They held several meetings over a six-month period, but found they couldn't agree even on the words to describe their values. The processes they were using were neither effective nor inspiring. They identified some words that seemed to be their values, but they weren't really feeling them. Many of the staff members felt disappointed at having put so much effort into the project without achieving any real results.
Carrizzo then brought in Dr. Kelly Gerling, an organizational consultant specializing in leadership based on values. He hoped Gerling could assist in the department's efforts.
THE CHIEFS LISTEN
Initially, Gerling met individually with Carrizzo and the two division chiefs. After these first meetings, he suggested that they conduct a morale survey of all department members — both volunteer and career. Gerling's survey asked what members liked and appreciated about their jobs and the organization, what they thought were persistent problems, and what suggestions they might have for improvement. The survey responses were to be anonymous and make no distinctions between volunteer or career department members, nor between officers and non-officers. Each person sent a completed survey by mail to an independent service that compiled the results.
The survey results brought both good and bad news. On the positive side, the respondents liked and appreciated the close and friendly atmosphere in the organization, the shared commitment to the community, and the camaraderie among department personnel. They also liked the training offered, the equipment provided and the small size of the department.
Criticisms, however, included the observation that the officers sometimes had a “do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do” attitude. Respondents said there was insufficient communication between officers and the rank-and-file, resulting in the two groups not being on the same page when it came to interpreting policies and decisions. They also said that some officers were at times harsh or negative in their communications, causing channels of communication to close down. Finally, respondents said that volunteers and career staff were not respected equally.
Gerling next suggested a series of structured leadership development sessions with the chiefs. In these sessions they discussed the survey results and focused on addressing the complaints voiced in the survey. A number of exercises helped the three chiefs get to know each other better and communicate more openly. The exercises included telling stories about some of their key life events and describing their hopes for the future. They also discussed the typical ways in which they responded to stressful situations.
Carrizzo and his two division chiefs further discovered that, under stress, they sometimes used one or more of five ineffective patterns of responding to stressful situations — blaming, avoiding, whining, labeling negatively and being sarcastic. They discussed which of these they used when they were upset or stressed, or when their values were violated. Then, to communicate in a more cooperative, open and effective manner, they developed ways for preventing these patterns in themselves and with each other. These ways included self-directed methods such as venting to a neutral party instead of blaming, or reflecting or meditating instead of avoiding. They also came up with methods that involved reminding each other not to respond ineffectively, such as using a prearranged non-verbal signal to interrupt anyone who started to raise his voice or otherwise exhibit a blaming mode.
As the three gained a better understanding of each other, they made significant progress in how openly they communicated during their meetings, both concerning their complaints with each other and how they behaved toward others in the department. After this series of sessions, Gerling suggested that it was time to invite the officers and perhaps others into the process. The chiefs agreed.
This phase began with an all-day session that included Carrizzo, the division chiefs, and nine officers (both career and volunteer). During the meeting, Gerling led the group through a series of exercises for analyzing the survey results for values, discovering their own values and team-building.
At this session, Gerling also introduced the use of a “talking ball” to facilitate group discussion. A tennis ball served as the talking ball. During a meeting, whoever held the ball had the floor and could speak without interruption. Once finished, the person holding it would either give it to someone who asked for it or place it in the center of the group for whomever might want to speak next. Using the talking ball made it more likely that each person in the group had a chance to speak and express complete thoughts.
In one of the key exercises, group members were told to pair off and tell values stories of two kinds — when values were fulfilled and when they were violated. Their values-fulfillment stories exemplified what inspired them, whether at work or in some other situation. In contrast, their values-violation stories exemplified what annoyed them to a small or large degree. While telling fulfillment or violation stories to the whole group, they determined what particular value was either fulfilled or violated in each story, such as trust or respect.
Gerling helped the participants to understand in a logical sense what values are. He emphasized that words such as trust and respect exist on the surface of experience, but do not themselves constitute the deeper undercurrents of thought and feeling they represent. He suggested that everyone has values, that values have names which are usually individual words or short phrases, and that people experienced their values as feelings that come from an underlying system of valuing.
Gerling also told the participants that their feelings, experienced as emotions, guided most of their actions, sometimes consciously and other times unconsciously. Because their values and the value system from which they originate form their day-to-day emotional experience, stories of experiencing respect and disrespect, or trust and mistrust, activated their values deeply. When told and discussed in a group, these stories give their values a shared meaning. In contrast, he said, value-words themselves remained abstract labels and carried less meaning if they weren't accompanied by stories or associated with real-time events.
In additional sessions, staff members continued to tell values-fulfillment and values-violation stories that revealed many of their shared values. In this process they began feeling their values. They also analyzed the results of the survey insofar as those results indicated desired values. From these two sources — their own values and the survey results — they ended up with this list of value-words that described a proposed set of the department's values:
For the staff, these values became a possible code of conduct for treating one another and others in the department as equal human beings. Through a series of meetings with the firefighters on the three shifts, the staff began describing what they had learned in their leadership development sessions, the eight values, and the survey results and ways to address them. The feedback from firefighters concerning the values focused primarily on their meaning and how they would be practiced.
To facilitate the idea of practicing the values, the staff created an open-door communication process. In routine situations at SPFPD the chiefs and officers openly discussed jobs, assignments and performance as usual, but they added the open-door process. This encouraged members of the organization to request further discussion about any decision with which they disagreed if they felt it did not conform either to the organization's stated values or their conscience. This open-door process, combined with the department's values, became a flexible code of conduct that represented a partial abandonment of the strict chain-of-command decision-making process. The department still used the chain-of-command to decide their formal structure, organizational policies and guidelines, and to make decisions at an emergency scene.
In addition to identifying and practicing the values on a day-to-day basis, Carrizzo also wanted everyone in the department to visualize a future based on the values — a future they all could get excited about in the form of a strategic plan. This, he believed, would enable the organization to focus on high-priority, long-term goals that had been neglected in the past. He proposed the idea to the rest of the staff and they agreed to pursue it.
"The department is continuing to hold regularly scheduled open-communication meetings that include all officers and firefighters on each shift. Anyone can call an open-communication meeting at any time to deal with any issue, or use the SPFPD open-door process."
The SPFPD is governed by a three-person publicly elected board of directors. Because it's the responsibility of the members of the board to plan the future of the department, Carrizzo asked them to join the process at this stage, and they agreed to do so.
Gerling designed and facilitated a session to help the staff and the board members bring about a strategic plan that incorporated the department's values. Visualizing their future through the lens of the eight values, the participants projected five years into the future. Each person visualized scenarios that inspired them and fulfilled their values. They also envisioned negative future scenarios, which represented values not being practiced. The participants then compared stories, first in pairs and then in small groups.
Finally, the participants shared their thoughts and found that many of the futures that they imagined were very similar. From the results of this exercise, they drafted a detailed five-year strategic plan. It was able to be written without a lot of disagreement, because the participants had a clear idea of where they were going and what was important to them.
At this stage, the staff had a concise description of the values and a completed draft of a strategic plan. The officers discussed both of these aspects with the firefighters on their shifts, and the chiefs believed they had made enough progress to bring the entire organization together to discuss how to proceed.
As had been the case in prior smaller sessions, the all-department group of about 50 sat in chairs arranged in a circle so that everyone could see and hear one another. As with the other sessions, they used the talking ball to make sure each person could speak without being interrupted.
The session began with the chiefs and officers summarizing what they had been doing since the initial survey. Gerling then led the group through a series of exercises incorporating the eight SPFPD values. The chiefs and the officers emphasized that they had been attempting to address the concerns voiced in the survey responses and hoped the members had noticed some differences in how they were actually behaving. Several firefighters said that while they didn't know the details of what the chiefs and officers had been doing in their meetings, they had noticed improvements on the part of the officers, such as better listening and calmer behavior under stress.
During the all-department meeting, the participants did many of the same exercises that the chiefs, officers and board members had done in prior sessions. The group discussed their own examples of the eight values. They asked clarifying questions about the department's mission, shared ways to practice the values and affirmed support for the strategic plan. The session ended with each person making a commitment to the group as to how he or she was going to go forward and help the organization. This all-department session represented the culmination of two years of addressing complaints by pursuing shared values. Now the department needed to begin consciously practicing the values more systematically while measuring its progress.
Following the all-department meeting, the chiefs, other officers and union officials began conducting regular open-communication meetings with each of the three shifts. People brought up many issues, then resolved them. Individuals spoke up about how the department was doing on practicing the values. They began talking freely about whatever was important to them. These meetings extended the IAFC/IAFF Labor Management Partnership Program because they involved everyone in the department, in addition to the labor and management committees.
In late 2003, the chiefs decided to repeat the same morale survey used to begin the process in 2001. When the new results came back, the chiefs were pleased to find a significant improvement. Respondents voiced an even higher percentage of positive comments about the department's cooperative culture, and a much smaller percentage of comments about chiefs and other officers not being on the same page or not setting an example for others to follow.
The new survey did contain a few comments about the use of the chain of command to shut down requests to discuss unresolved problems that firefighters brought to a superior officer. In response, the chiefs scheduled more meetings, discussions and training to root out such problems from the department's culture. They also reiterated and clarified their open-door policy to encourage any staff member with a values conflict with his or her boss to get help from someone else in the organization.
In early 2004 a new tax levy was passed, giving the SPFPD more funds for the expansion of its personnel to meet the needs of the increasing population of the district. But the department was concerned that growth had the potential to again harm its culture. As the department expanded in personnel from 2004 to early 2006, it implemented additional strategies to practice values and enhance its culture.
A new values-specific survey was created to expand on the morale survey and measure department-wide fulfillment of the eight values. The chiefs now use this survey on a regular basis because it provides a benchmark to measure continual progress as the department identifies and solves problems related to practicing values.
For current and future leaders, the department continues to provide leadership training. In addition, it acquaints any newly-hired firefighters with the values through training and offers an overview of leadership skills helpful for practicing them. The department is continuing to hold regularly scheduled open-communication meetings that include all officers and firefighters on each shift. Anyone can call an open-communication meeting at any time to deal with any issue, or use the SPFPD open-door process. The department re-drafted its strategic plan in 2005, using the same processes as before, which included advice and consent from the board members and feedback from the firefighters.
Richard R. Carrizzo is fire chief of the Southern Platte (Mo.) Fire Protection District. He holds a master's degree in business administration, is a graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program and serves as commissioner for the Chief Fire Officer Designation program representing combination departments. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. www.spfpd.com
Kelly P. Gerling, Ph.D., is the founder and CEO of The Leadership Project, a consulting firm that specializes in values based leadership. He has a master's degree in human relations and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. Contact him at email@example.com