In the first week of May, 2009, the Santa Barbara area was devastated by a natural disaster all too common in Southern California – a wild fire. To date, 80 homes have been destroyed, 28 fire fighters have been injured, 30,000 people have been evacuated and over 12 million dollars have been spent fighting this fire.

Last week I was sitting on my balcony overlooking the mountains that rise above downtown Santa Barbara, watching as multiple fires consumed the hillside. As I wondered if the latest escalation and intensification of the flames was a tree or someone’s home, I found myself asking the following questions:

1) Could this have been predicted?
2) Could this have been prevented?
3) If it could have been prevented, why was nothing done?
4) What does this mean to us?
5) What can we learn from this?

Could this have been predicted?
For years, dry underbrush has been accumulating in the mountains of Santa Barbara, and anyone hiking would have easily noticed the large amount of dry, dead wood. We knew summer was coming as it does every year. The danger of a fire that would threaten homes was obvious. Not only was this fire predictable, it was in fact predicted.

Could this have been prevented?
If we knew of the danger, could we have prevented it? We could have cleared the dying underbrush from critical areas where fires would threaten homes, or we could have diffused the threat of fires by actively creating a controlled fire when weather conditions favored the fire fighter rather than the flame. Yes, there were ways to prevent this natural disaster.

If the fire could have been prevented, why was nothing done?
Clearing the underbrush is a difficult and time consuming endeavor, but even more, clearing the underbrush must be done continuously and proactively, long before the danger of fire is imminent, thus making it politically difficult to sell. Similarly, creating a controlled fire is politically dangerous because of the chance that it would go out of control.

What does this mean to us?
We knew there was a problem of deadwood drying out in our mountains. We knew the solution, but were unable or unwilling to muster the political will to implement that solution. We sat on our hands and as we all know, a problem unaddressed is a crisis in waiting.

This is exactly what happened. The weather predictably turned hot and dry and our mountains were left so vulnerable that even the slightest spark would set them ablaze.

Ironically, reports state that a man working with power tools to clear the underbrush started the fire. They are currently looking for him…

So what can we, as managers, learn from this?
If you ignore a problem, it will get worse until the slightest spark sets it “alight” into a crisis. Additionally, if you postpone dealing with a problem long enough, then the very act of trying to deal with that problem can be enough to turn it into a crisis.

We see this all too often in organizations. A problem is left unattended for so long that it traps the organization into inaction, for if they act to solve the problem they will set the spark that turns it into a crisis.

What is also interesting is that the man who took it upon himself to start dealing with the problem, the man who was clearing the underbrush, is now wanted on criminal charges.

The same mentality can be seen in organizations. The person who neglects the problem is ignored, while the person who tries to solve the problem is persecuted.

If clearing underbrush was enough to start a massive fire that destroyed 80 homes, whose fault was it, the one who was clearing the underbrush or the ones who allowed conditions to get so bad?

Just like a forest, an organization needs to be managed. This requires proactively addressing problems before they become crises. Additionally, the crisis does not start when the fire starts, but rather when the cost of addressing the problem is greater than the cost of the crisis itself. Finally, when a crisis does happen, do not blame the one who is trying to solve the problem. Instead blame those who created the situation to begin with.

As a side note, we want to thank everyone who contacted us and were concerned about the fire. Fortunately, the fire was not close to the Adizes Institute or the home of Dr. Adizes. Thank you for your concern.

Shoham Adizes