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Leadership in the Field: Lessons Learned from Fighting Fires

This May was way too early in the year for wildfires in San Diego, CA where I live. Yet conditions were tragically perfect…lots of underbrush growth over the past couple years, a gusty Santa Ana wind raising temperatures above 100°F even near the Pacific coastline, and the relative humidity dropping below 8%. The ensuing eleven large-scale fires in San Diego County which ignited over 72 hours in May took down over 40 homes and multiple out-buildings, offices, and other structures, burned over 20,000 acres, and killed one person.

Over 1800 firefighters were deployed from several different parts of California along with 22 aircraft specifically designed to battle these blazes. According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), on large open grass fires, Fire Command has the responsibility for assuring the often diverse teams all work together to accomplish the common goal of extinguishing the fire, minimizing continuing threats, maximizing safety, and doing this with limited resources. Fire Command must also quickly develop a firefighting plan. The following is a list of situation considerations that greatly affect tactics and strategy:

  • Location of fire head or heads. The fast moving part of the fire.

  • Pertinent burning conditions – e.g. weather, time of day, etc.

  • Type of fuel – light, heavy fuel load.

  • Exposures – improvements, buildings, crops, etc.

  • Size of fire and rate of speed

  • Special hazards – hot spots, spot fires, developing heads.

  • Manpower needs.

  • Accessibility into fire area.

  • Water resource – tankers, hydrants, etc.

  • Line of retreat. How can I escape?

In many ways, the Alliance Manager dealing with two business partners who are in disagreement is dealing with a "collaboration conflagration" not unlike a brushfire. We often talk about fighting fires in Alliance Management. Obviously, the danger and cost of poorly managed business relationships is measured in different parameters than in a fire situation but the impact on employees, company futures and; in the life sciences space, the eventual impact on patients' lives can be devastating when important clinical tools and drugs are unnecessarily delayed in getting to market.

When an Alliance Manager gets the escalation alarm on a hot issue or senses smoke coming from the governance group, they must do a similar situation assessment:

  • Location of the problem. The fast moving part of the issue.

  • Pertinent conditions – e.g. impact on quarterly revenue, senior management awareness, investor relations / public relations exposure.

  • Type of fuel – how much of the project is at risk, who is "fanning the fire"?

  • Exposures – what parts of the alliance are at risk?

  • Size of complication and how quickly will this expand?

  • Special hazards – is data compromised, is there risk of contract breach?

  • Manpower needs – who is needed to resolve and proactively prevent future issues?

  • Accessibility into issue areas – does the Alliance Manager have good line of sight?

  • Water resource – are management teams aligned to deliver solutions? Will financial resources be available if needed to address resource needs?

  • Line of Retreat – if irretrievable, what will be the exit strategy from the alliance?

Assuring solid, competent collaboration management is in place is a life-saving strategy in the open field when fighting real fires. Similarly, collaboration management plays a key role in business and clinical outcomes in the field of life sciences and drug development. You'll want to make sure you have the best firefighters you can on your Alliance Management team the next time you smell smoke.

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