SMB guru, K. Cunningham, often tells the story of the wild forest fire that left almost no one standing:
On August 5th, 1949, a small fire started in the backwoods of Mann Gulch, a remote canyon surrounded by 1,200-foot cliffs in Montana’s Helena National Forest. The fire grew quickly, to the point that sixteen smoke jumper firefighters had to be called to the blaze before it got too out of control.
Mann Gulch’s canyon walls are steep and treacherous to navigate in normal conditions, let alone during a forest fire. But it was its northern cliff that was particularly difficult because of its 76 degree incline. As the 16 men parachuted onto the scene and began to battle the fire, the wind suddenly shifted, and the fire expanded to 3,000 acres in a matter of minutes. The escalation and shift in direction ended up trapping the smoke jumpers against the steep north face.
In a race for their lives, it now seemed like the only way to survive was for the jumpers to run and climb the nearly vertical northern wall of the cliff faster than the rapidly encroaching fire. By day’s end, thirteen of these men unfortunately did not make it out of the forest, while three survived. This fire taught the U.S. Forest Service some startling, but valuable, lessons that are now universal and relevant today regardless of the firefighting we are doing.
The Forest Service discovered that the thirteen men who died had all carried their cumbersome tools (poleaxes, saws, shovels, heavy packpacks) while attempting to outrun the fire up the face of the cliff. They had been trained to keep their equipment with them at all times, and they did not deviate from these orders, even though their equipment was worse than useless in a footrace up the mountain. They literally died with their backpacks on.
For these firefighters, their tools represented who they were and what they were trained to do. Dropping their tools mean abandoning their existing knowledge, training, and experience – their identity.
The three survivors of the fire did things a bit differently. One of the men, Dodge, had learned a technique from the plains Indians known as an “escape fire.” Although it had not been taught by the Forest Service, Dodge gave it a shot: he struck a match and purposefully lit a ring of fire around himself. The fire he lit burned the surrounding grass, leaving no flammable material. He tried to convince the others to do the same but only two others listened.
These men lied down within their rings. With no flammable grass to burn, the main fire bearing down in their direction jumped over them, leaving them intact.
The U.S. Forest Service’s conclusions from this blaze were the following:
When environments radically change and we are confronted with moments of uncertainty and danger, clinging to the old right way might seem like a good idea – but if its not producing the results we were anticipating – the right way might be the deadly way.
New circumstances often require new skills, tools, and innovative solutions. The alternative, relying on past answers, can lead to suffering and failure to survive.
Sometimes the problem we started out to solve mutates. If we miss the shift, we may find ourselves trying to solve the new problem using solutions for the old problem. These old solutions may now be useless.
Quality Questions lead to Quality Answers.
Quality Answers lead to a shift of Focus.
This shift in Focus can now allow us to See what we could not see before.
This newfound sight – Insight – can now allow us to make more effective Decisions, take more effective Action, and produce superior Results:
What is the real problem I am facing?
How exactly is this problem different from the one I thought I had?
What are the poleaxes, shovels, and backpacks I’ve been lugging around that are no longer useful in helping me solve this immediate problem?
What are the tired, work-out strategies and plans that are no longer supporting me to solve this problem?
What is the existing model of behavior I need to drop to solve this problem?
What new knowledge do I need to learn to solve this problem and succeed?
Who around me is screaming an alternative solution?
Who around me do I need to ignore to problem-solve effectively?
You’ve got this, stay safe.