Accountability in a Mission-Driven Culture

by Mark Smith, Mission-Centered Solutions

A Mission-Driven Culture (MDC) has six core values:
• Service for the Common Good
• High Trust State
• Pursuit of Truth
• Form & Function Defined by the End State
• Individual Initiative
• Continuous Improvement

In a Spring 2019 Straight Tip article, we introduced the concept of a
mission-driven culture (MDC) and its six core values: service for the common good, high trust state, the pursuit of truth, form, and function defined by the end state, individual initiative, and continuous improvement. We asserted that in a mission-driven culture, liability goes down while accountability goes up. In this article, we will expand on the concept of accountability.

Why do we need a system of accountability anyway? Firefighters are motivated and dedicated professionals. If we all just do the right thing all the time, there would be no need to hold anyone accountable, right? The reality is that few of us perform at our full potential without accountability. It is simply human nature to devolve into a comfort zone of self-interest without positive cultural reinforcement. Holding ourselves and others accountable is essential to achieving high trust throughout the organization.

Policy Vs. Principles
A key part of accountability in MDCs is the distinction between policy
(i.e., rules) and principles (i.e., SOPs, SOGs, checklists). Rules are absolutes, while principles are good practices and should generally be applied based on the situation. For some people, following rules is easier and more comfortable because black-and-white rules mean judgment does not need to be applied. However, solely following rules and not applying judgment based on principles results in a focus on compliance rather than the mission. In focusing on rules, success is compliance, and people perceive no personal risk in following the rules, even if the mission fails. On the other hand, a mission-driven culture is based on form and function being defined by the end state, meaning the focus is on the success of the mission. The success of the mission can require judgment calls based on principles.

Principles such as checklists and SOPs are most beneficial when they are authoritative yet flexible to the situation, enabling operators to exercise judgment and adapt according to circumstances. How those principles are written is crucial. Avoid using absolutes such as never or always and judgment words such as should. It is best to describe what right looks like and the purpose of why it’s done that way.

Here is an example of a principle written as a rule: The first stream should always be placed between the fire and victims.
Wait! What about the pallet of lithium batteries in the way? Absolutes cannot anticipate the infinite variables operators will encounter.

A principle written to allow for situational judgment looks like this:
Place the first stream between victims and the fire. The highest priority is saving a savable life. This principle contains tasks and purposes tied to the values at risk so an operator can use their judgment in its application as the situation dictates.

MDC Accountability Guidelines
So, if principles are guidelines for judgment, what are we actually accountable for in an MDC?
First, everyone is accountable to know both the policies and the principles. In the Army, during a Combat Training Center rotation, we always had the leeway to adapt and improvise, provided we could demonstrate to the evaluators that we thoroughly understood both rules and our own SOPs.

Second, we are accountable for communication. Leaders are accountable for communicating the task, purpose, and end state of their intent. Operators are accountable for appropriately reporting conditions, actions, and needs.

Third, we are accountable for our actions. We should be able to explain to our peers or leaders why we did what we did. If we adopted an SOP or chose one standard over another, we should be able to explain our reasoning and walk through the connection between our actions and the
organizational and operational values at risk.

Finally, we are accountable for the results. Hands down, the best results
are achieved by leaders and operators applying values and exercising
disciplined initiative to achieve mission success.

What does right look like when implementing an MDC? Here’s an example.
An agency putting MDC into practice had an engine responding to a
wind-driven structure fire. On arrival, the captain assessed that the fire was already threatening non-evacuated adjacent occupancies. Exercising individual initiative, he ordered the engineer to establish the first attack line using a much larger diameter hose than prescribed by the SOP. He also told the engineer to wait to don his PPE until he had the first water supply established. The captain justified his decisions using the risk versus gain calculus of life now being threatened and the minimal exposure to the engineer. The agency supported the captain’s decision. He applied a disciplined initiative to do the right thing.
What does wrong look like? The engineer, after establishing the first water supply, chose not to don his PPE. His behavior did not come back into alignment with the SOP once the situation was ops normal. That is called freelancing.

A successful operator of an MDC can walk peers through any set of decisions, discussing the doctrinal process and where a step or SOP was adapted and why—all based on the organization’s core and operational values. A freelancer is not able to do this; they cannot explain their actions and link back to the values.

A Just Culture Approach
Understanding the different levels of errors and violations is important when enforcing accountability in an MDC. In our high-risk line of work,
mistakes often happen as the result of trying to balance safety, efficiency, and effectiveness—the three competing priorities prized in dynamic and high-stress environments. Mistakes can be classified as one of two major types: errors and willful violations.

Errors are generally mistakes made because of errors in perception, decision, or skills. Willful violations can be further categorized as routine or exceptional. An example of a routine willful violation is driving 68 mph in a 65-mph zone. Lots of us do that. Not many state troopers are going to expend resources on penalizing this violation—they would have to give tickets to everyone! Problems happen if you can’t enforce a standard across the board, and no one I’ve ever met can successfully discipline routine violations consistently. An exceptional violation—for example, driving 77 in a 65-mph zone—is a willful violation that will get anyone a ticket except in the most in extremis situation.

In a bureaucratic, rules-based culture, all violations are equal, great and small, no matter the circumstances. The classic disciplinary action follows every violation without taking into account the circumstances or whether the violations were an error or a willful violation. In the case of our example above, it would seem fair to make an example of our rogue engineer. However, confidentiality protocols apply, along with union-management tension, which means no sharing—and therefore no example or organizational learning—which leads to unsubstantiated rumors and no clear explanation of what really happened. All of this detracts from a high trust state and continuous improvement. This all-too-common example illustrates how not to move the organization forward.

As an alternative to a rules-based culture, a natural subset of MDC is a just culture. A just culture ensures balanced accountability for both individuals and the organization. Conversations about a just culture are occurring more often in the fire service—for good reason.

In our example, a just culture solution was proposed by the engineer and his captain—and approved by the chiefs and the union—to have the engineer make a short video explaining how his actions fell short of MDC expectations for all members of the agency. The engineer stepped up and owned his actions. The solution was transparent and benefitted the entire organization. It was appropriate for the level of violation, and both management and the union supported it.
This solution aligns with MDC principles: form and function are driven by the end state, high trust state, pursuit of truth, and continuous improvement. This kind of accountability fuels the ongoing dialog about what right and wrong look like in an MDC.

Use Outcomes as Opportunities
Inevitably, even for conscientious operators who exercise disciplined the initiative, bad outcomes will occur. As a young Army Ranger, I once overheard my battalion commander react to such news by saying, “Well, when you send out a bunch of 19-year-old Rangers with a lot of explosives, they’re eventually going to blow something up you didn’t want.”

A bad outcome does not necessarily mean that operators were reckless or irresponsible. It’s possible that the operators applied their best judgment and did everything reasonable, yet things still did not end well.

Likewise, a good outcome does not necessarily mean that the operators’
actions were on target. Sometimes we just get lucky because poor decisions or shortcuts did not bite us in the butt—this time.

No one likes bad outcomes or the pain and increased scrutiny that goes with them. In some organizations, poor outcomes generate this bureaucratic axiom: For every action there is an equal and opposite overreaction. Happily, this effect is not inevitable. Instead, bad outcomes can be an opportunity for your organization to walk its talk of core values and
mission-driven culture.

Become a proponent of just culture accountability as you develop a mission-driven culture. For errors of decision, perception, or skills, training is most often the appropriate solution. For routine willful violations, as with the engineer sharing his story, a just culture solution is appropriate.

Of course, if a pattern of willful violations develop, disciplinary action
may be necessary. In most cases when fostering the accountability of a
just culture, discipline can be reserved for exceptional willful violations
and negligence of a more serious nature, particularly where core values
of the organization were compromised.

A mission-driven culture encourages accountability that builds the high
trust state and serves the common good for the increased effectiveness
of your organization.