Fire Fighting in Canada

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Cornerstone: September 2009

Thanks to two readers for recommending QBQ! – The Question Behind the Question, by John G. Miller and Managing in Times of Change by Michael Maginn.

In QBQ! Miller discusses the fact that before we can embrace change we need to become accountable for our actions.

September 14, 2009
By Lyle Quan

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Thanks to two readers for recommending QBQ! – The Question Behind the Question, by John G. Miller and Managing in Times of Change by Michael Maginn.

In QBQ! Miller discusses the fact that before we can embrace change we need to become accountable for our actions. I have heard people ask why a department has to go through change, or wonder aloud who dropped the ball and caused a shakeup. As Miller notes, these types of comments reflect a lack of personal accountability. Instead, we should ask how we can solve the problem. We cannot change how our fellow firefighters think about things but we can demonstrate a commitment to being accountable for what we do. Doing this helps us eliminate the negative and accentuate the positive.

By asking better questions we naturally will receive better answers. Miller notes that there are three simple guidelines for creating a QBQ, which are:

  1. Begin with what or how (not why, when or who);
  2. Contain an I (not they, them, we or you);
  3. Focus on action.

For example, ask how you can do your job better today, what you can do to improve the situation or how you can support others.

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My favourite notation in Miller’s book relates to what he calls gaps of integrity. This is when your supervisor says, “I’m here to help you reach your personal goals” and then dresses you down in front of others.

By becoming accountable for your actions, you will learn how to positively take action (by not blaming others for your mistakes). As Miller notes, “Even though there are risks involved in taking action, the alternative – inaction – is almost never the better choice.

  • Action, even when it leads to mistakes, brings learning and growth. Inaction brings stagnation and atrophy.
  • Action leads us toward solutions. Inaction at best does nothing and holds us in the past.
  • Action requires courage. Inaction often indicates fear.
  • Action builds confidence; inaction, doubt.”

The second book, Managing in Times of Change, complements Miller’s teachings by offering straight talk to help leaders implement change. Michael Maginn notes that leaders should:

  • Find the rainbow – Think carefully about where the opportunity might be in the change situation. Where can you shine? What can you learn? What impact can you make?
  • Banish negative thinking – Don’t let obstacles appear so large that they stop you from seeing the opportunity that change represents. If you find yourself dwelling on the negatives, ask yourself why and switch your perspective.
  • Look for the critical success factor – Any change is going to involve something special; coordination, motivation, teamwork, technical skill and leadership. Put yourself in a position to deliver what is needed.

This book leads readers to the realization that one of the most effective ways for managers to fully engage their employees in change is to demonstrate that things are actually happening and that they are achieving the desired results.

A final lesson in Maginn’s book is that there are four broadly defined barriers that individuals may encounter when dealing with change. The first barrier is some form of resistance; the manager’s role is to motivate these individuals by defining the positive impact of change on the individual. The next barrier is loss of self-control; what used to be familiar is now distressingly strange. At this stage, the manager needs to coach and guide the individuals and teams through one-on-one meetings. The third challenge is the loss of power; this can be a tough area since many people associate their self-esteem with their level of authority within the organization. Finally, the challenge may be so formidable that individuals are unable to accept even the most tantalizing benefits – such as enhanced salary or relocation to a nicer region – because family or professional obligations might conflict and therefore accepting the change becomes a difficult personal sacrifice. Regardless, the manager needs to help the individual see what has been or will be gained through the change initiative.

The keys here to accepting personal accountability are recognizing your role in the change initiative, communicating your intentions and supporting your team by asking how you can help members achieve their goals.

Personal accountability is required at all levels but how we demonstrate it makes the difference. We all need to be accountable for our actions – whether we’re the fire chief, platoon chief, captain or firefighter and whether we’re leading change or simply finding a more effective way to do our jobs.


Lyle Quan is a deputy fire chief with the Guelph Fire Department in Ontario. A 28-year veteran of emergency services he is an associate instructor for the Ontario Fire College, Lakeland College and Dalhousie University. Contact him at thequans@sympatico.ca


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