Fighting Fire Within the Web

Sally Helgesen, twice a Cool Friend, has given us this post, which she also put at her new website, Thank you, Sally:

I know it’s only June, but my vote for the coolest example of what frontline empowerment can achieve is already cast. It goes to the New York City Fire Department, which has just approved a new rope system designed not by some outsourcer but by a group of firefighters, who were spurred to action by a fire in the Bronx in which two comrades died because of cumbersome and weak ropes.

The firefighters who designed the new system did so by drawing on off-duty skills such as rock climbing and metalworking. Working on their own, they formed a design team, studied materials, went to conferences to interview vendors and learn what was available and why, paying their own way to do so. Once they had figured out an alternative, one of the team members taught himself to sew so they could create a prototype. Their passion and hard work paid off: This week, the NYFD announced it would spend $11 million to acquire their system.

The story reminded me of the case study I did on Beth Israel Hospital in Boston, which appeared in my 1995 book, The Web of Inclusion. The purpose of the book was to explore organizations that were good at drawing on the talents of people at every level—not just those at the top. I wanted to see what it takes to get past the industrial era distinction between head and hands, to bridge the divide between those who make decisions and those on the front lines who actually implement those decisions.

Beth Israel was doing a great job of this at the time. The president and the VP for nursing had recognized that nurses were the real point of intersection between the hospital and the patient, and were trying to turn the traditional hierarchy on its head by empowering nurses to make a wide range of decisions. One stunning example was Donna Miller, an oncology nurse who felt frustrated because the adhesive bandages that the hospital was using were causing trauma to her patients’ skin. In her spare time, Donna set to work on her old Singer to design something that would solve the problem, creating a high quality prototype using Velcro and elastic straps from old girdles. Donna tried it out in the ward, and then the hospital worked with her to patent, manufacture, and market the device.

Most organizations talk a blue streak about the need to unleash their peoples’ talents, but do a sorry job of drawing on ideas that don’t come from those at the top. In order to learn from what the New York firefighters or Donna Miller did, companies must build webs that enable people from every part of the organization to contribute ideas. How to start? In researching The Web, I found that companies that were good at drawing from a broad base of talent were companies that had the capacity to listen to their squeaky wheels.

Squeaky wheels are those people who question why something like the Bronx fire tragedy had to happen, or why patients have to suffer from torn skin. Listened to and given support to try new solutions, squeaky wheels have the capacity to put their passion and frontline experience to use in the service of finding new solutions. The problem is that many organizations tend to see their squeaky wheels as troublemakers, complainers, or subversives. They try to isolate them, rather than harnessing their discontent.