Strategic Thinking

Over the past few years, we have endured economic hardships that have eaten into the fabric of our society. As a consequence, the fire service is under a kind of scrutiny it has rarely seen. We may have considered ourselves immune from severe cuts in budgets and entitlements, but that’s not the...


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Over the past few years, we have endured economic hardships that have eaten into the fabric of our society. As a consequence, the fire service is under a kind of scrutiny it has rarely seen. We may have considered ourselves immune from severe cuts in budgets and entitlements, but that’s not the case. We are long overdue for a paradigm shift in the way we do business by understanding who we are, who we really serve and why.

Strategic thinking focuses on finding and developing opportunities to create value by enabling a provocative conversation among firefighters and officers at every level. Strategic thinking is now as critical for us as the development and perpetuation of our existence as a public service. This means rigorously understanding the new drivers of departmental effectiveness for our citizens and challenging conventional thinking to create excellence.

Marketing is one of those disciplines that span a broad range of opportunities for any organization, and the fire service is no exception. It lets each member contribute in a way that brings the passion of the profession to the department and to the citizens we protect. I have seen every kind of corporate, public service, national and international organization embrace the marketing platform. And I have found very few “brands” with more potential to gain public and personal loyalty than the fire department and the firefighter, yet we are not leveraging that brand in a way that can support us as we protect our citizens.

It seems as though interest in marketing the fire service increases in proportion to the external threats we perceive to doing “business as usual.” Guess what – “business as usual” is over, and marketing is a 24/7 function.

Marketing is the long-term maintenance and perpetuation of your department. If you need to sell the department, you are firefighting. Firefighting is making the best of a situation that is already out of control. We do enough of that daily in keeping people safe. I recently had a conversation with Chief Mark Wallace, the new fire marshal for Oregon. We discussed his newly updated book, Fire Department Strategic Planning: Creating Future Excellence, and I wanted to understand how he sees marketing’s role in strategic planning. Naturally, he emphasized the importance of marketing. He also noted that the strategic-planning process is every bit as much about strategic thinking and discussing possible futures of a department’s direction as it is about specific operational planning.

I have always believed that every department should have a strategic plan; and that a marketing plan should be a subset of that plan. I have also come to believe that strategic plans must be dynamic and flexible.

One key difference between strategic thinking and strategic planning is that strategic planning is very concrete. It assumes that the future is predictable and specific in detail. Then, the plan details the necessary steps for achieving these goals and objectives. Strategic planning’s role is to realize and support strategies developed through the strategic thinking process and integrate these back into the organization. [For more information about this concept, see Liedtka, J.M. (1998), “Linking Strategic Thinking with Strategic Planning,” Strategy and Leadership, 26 (4), 30-35.]

Strategic thinking is the way in which all members think about, assess, view and create the future for themselves and the department. This, of course, includes how the department creates a safe future for the community it protects. Strategic thinking is proactive, not reactive, as it creates tomorrow from what it sees today.

Strategic thinking often requires a change in your present paradigm and your way of thinking, relating and performing. It has a systems perspective. This means end-to-end value creation, the role of the firefighter in this system of value and an understanding of the competencies the system needs.

One key competency of strategic thinking is holding past, present and future in mind simultaneously to come up with better decision-making and to speed implementation. This means being able to focus on one small piece of a problem while keeping in mind the departmental vision and how this problem could contribute to departmental opportunity.

Every firefighter has a stake in creating the future: “What can I contribute to my crew, my department and the global fire service?” And that, my friends, is what is now at stake.

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