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The 4 Ps: A blueprint for embracing change in the fire service

Learn how to plan for major industry shifts – both on the fireground and at the firehouse – and how to navigate these transitions successfully


Leaders should be prepared to manage the inevitable temporary confusion and disruption that will initially come as a new organizational model is implemented.

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Change can be hard. Everyone knows that. It is especially difficult when it goes beyond merely technical changes, such as replacing one tool with a new one. When making technical change, there will still be some who resist the new way, but in most cases, everyone will agree that the concept of the change is valid – the tool was accepted as necessary before and will still be necessary even in its new form.

Much more challenging are changes that involve identity, culture and history. In his book, “Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change,” change management expert William Bridges calls these kinds of changes “transitions,” and cautions that the process for making such transitions effective and lasting requires a thoughtful and deliberate three-step process:

  1. Recognize that something must end before the new way is possible.
  2. Acknowledge that there will be a period of disruption between endings and new beginnings, which he labels “the neutral zone.”
  3. Manage the change. Real transition is only possible after the first two steps are complete, but to be successful, the change must be managed.

The 4 Ps to lasting change

Building off Step 3, Bridges calls the four aspects of durable change the four Ps: purpose, picture, plan, and part to play.

For example, say a fire department that has been predominantly staffed by volunteers throughout its history is now preparing to move to being a fully paid career department. This is a major change that will trigger many feelings and issues, both personal and organizational.

Wise leadership will be sure to recognize and honor what is ending to begin this process. It should also be prepared to manage the inevitable temporary confusion and disruption that will initially come as the new organizational model is implemented. But if the new way is to be fully embraced and become functional, attention must be paid to the four Ps.

Organizational leaders who embrace the four Ps recognize the reality that not everyone sees the change in the same way. For some in the organization, the new way of doing things is obviously good – they are immediately ready to go with it. For others, not so much. Attending to the four Ps will ensure that durable change is implemented consistently throughout the organization.

1. Purpose: First, make sure everyone understands the purpose behind the change. You may need to sell the problem that is triggering the solution before everyone will be open to the new way. Hopefully most of the underlying issues that motivated the change have already been surfaced. But it doesn’t hurt to reiterate the sense of purpose. Critically, the purpose must be clear and mean something to everyone in the organization. The best sense of purpose is that which is values and mission-based: We are better able to serve our communities. We can provide new and necessary services. We will keep our members safer.

2. Picture: A shared sense of purpose is the necessary first step, but it is often somewhat abstract. It must be combined with a specific picture of what the new way will look like:

  • How will stations be staffed in the new system?
  • What kind of shifts will people be working?
  • What will the command structure be?

You don’t need to have all the answers at this point, but there must be a clear picture that is tangible and logical.

3. Plan: A picture must be accompanied by a plan. Transitioning from volunteer to fully paid is a big task and is best broken down into smaller parts that may be more easily understood and grasped:

  • What role will current members have?
  • How will officers be selected?
  • What is the timeframe for the commissioning of fully staffed stations?)

Bridges offers a reminder:

[A] change management plan starts with the outcome and then works backwards, step by step, to create the necessary preconditions for that outcome. A transition management plan, on the other hand, starts with where people are and then works forward, step by step, through the process of leaving the past behind, getting through the wilderness and profiting from it, and emerging with new attitudes, behaviors and identity.”

4. Part to play: The last part of the transition process is perhaps the most important. People must not only understand the plan, but also see what part they will play in its success. There are two ways this will manifest. First, everyone needs to know their own role and their relationship to others in the new scheme of things. But just as important, people must see their role in making the transition process itself successful. This aspect of defining a part to play not only gives everyone a stake in the success of the outcome but creates accountability for individuals during the process as well. Increasing engagement in this way will foster greater understanding and buy-in of the entire transition process.

It is important that everyone feels they have a part to play in the transition process, even those who might feel they are being left behind from the new way. If volunteers cannot be incorporated into the new staffing structure of the department, offer them other meaningful roles, not only through the transition process, but also in the new organizational model. Can they volunteer as advisors or serve as mentors? Can you find other creative ways to conserve their experience and expertise?

Giving everyone a significant part to play in the transition management process also increases knowledge and insight among all members for why the change is needed and what benefits it will bring. Such understanding can be a unifying force where organizational members can align themselves together against the problem rather than fighting among themselves over lesser issues.

The power of group input

When managing a major organizational transition, those who are leading cannot afford to leave anyone behind. No one is a write-off or incidental to the success of the overall mission. Those who feel they are being treated in this way will find other ways to make their presence known, and it usually won’t be in the service of the desired goals. But when people are included, starting with the acknowledgement of loss at both individual and organizational levels and working through to how exactly each person will be instrumental in the success of the new vision, then change can become a winning proposition for everyone.

Take your department in the direction you want. Get expert advice on how to effectively lead your fire department. 20-year veteran Linda Willing writes “Leading the Team,” a FireRescue1 column about fire department leadership.
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