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Musings of an Emergency Manager: Hot Washes

February 12, 2021

Musings of an Emergency Manager: Hotwashes

One of the great things about EM is we’re constantly striving to learn and improve. A nearly universal technique for doing this is the post-incident or exercise review. A.K.A. the hotwash. However, like any meeting, a hotwash has to be properly facilitated in order to achieve its objectives. If you lose control of it, the benefits can be diminished and relationships damaged. I should know as I have had a few get away from me in the past. Some I was able to recover. Others it was like a car spinning out of control on a snowy highway. You know it’s going to stop, but you aren’t sure where you’ll be when it does.

In the first part of my EM career working in state government, I dreaded hot washes. After every nuclear power plant dry run and exercise, we’d gather people, who’d just spent 6 hours together in a small room, in a slightly larger room, and ask what went wrong. From the way the question was asked I’m sure it won’t be a surprise to learn these sessions became a litany of pain. First, legitimate process issues and miscommunications would be raised. Then, someone would call out someone else for an error, who then felt the need to defend their actions. Once that dust-up settled down the complaints about the food, room temperature, and the lack of trash cans (the person who raised this issue was using the “missing” trash can as a footrest the entire exercise) would begin. After this much unrestrained “sharing” I’m sure you won’t be shocked to learn no one wanted to see each other for a long time, let alone take the lead on fixing issues.

This cycle of pain would have continued if I hadn’t been fortunate enough to attend a course at the Naval Postgraduate School. One of the sessions in the course focused on a process called appreciative inquiry. What I took away from this is that high performing organizations and individuals don’t focus on errors. They focus on what they did right, what success looks like, and the steps it will take to achieve success. My first thought was “touchy-feely BS”. Then the presenter showed us the data, and examples from real-life implementations in free-spirited organizations like the U.S. Navy. So I figured I’d give it a shot.

The first exercise after the class I changed food vendors (the food had sucked) and during the hotwash introduction made it clear that room temperature was beyond my control. Additionally, we were going to focus on the processes and procedures we were using, not the people in the roles. Individual performance problems would be addressed by managers off-line. Our concern was if we plugged anyone into the position could they succeed at the job. Lastly, I instituted a process where you had to give a positive along with your negative. When negative feedback was voiced, I asked follow-up questions about how it could be fixed. What would it look like if we’d done it right? 

At first, it was like pulling teeth to get the positives, but I stuck to my guns, and eventually, the positive feedback flowed nearly as well as the negative. And the negative identified legitimate issues and potential solutions. Assigning responsibility was still a little tricky, but even that was easier because by focusing on the process it was more apparent which agency owned the role, and was responsible for success in that position. As we kept this up exercise after exercise, hotwashes became less tense and more productive.  

So when I found myself in the Higher Ed space I tried to institute a similar process following our first major incident on campus. I decided I’d start with having everyone just give their positive impressions to set the tone for the whole meeting, then we’d get to the negative, and summarize the positive at the end. Huge error. An hour and a half into the allotted two hours the whiteboard had been filled with all the things that had gone well or we’d done right. Even things I had judged a complete disaster were reinterpreted as strengths or good outcomes. I was eventually able to steer us to some areas of improvement, but for a brief period of time I really thought the group was going to start singing kumbaya, share a hug, and talk about… “feelings”. 

Right after this session, I held an impromptu hot wash of my own with the police command staff who had attended. Judging by their smirks during the discussion, I knew they could answer the key question on my mind: “WTF was that?”.

To my recollection, the Chief said it best “Son. This is Higher Ed, where the focus of almost all these people is to support students and no one wants anyone to feel bad about themselves. They can spin anything to a positive outlook.”

This was a valuable reminder that I’d failed to know my audience. I’d assumed my culture and experience mirrored theirs and was very much mistaken. It also showed me I had misapplied and oversimplified the concepts of appreciative inquiry. I’d focused exclusively on the positive, rather than using the negative as a starting place to create actions toward success.

Hotwashes must be managed correctly to avoid skewing into the doldrums of negativity or the saccharine denial of fantasy. Don't focus exclusively on one or the other, but use the negative to inform what you want success to look like, and what actions need to be taken to succeed. As I think back on it now I wish I had started hot washes with a discussion of what success looks like. With that defined the discussion could have been about the steps to make that vision a reality.

Another tool you should use in every hotwash is a parking lot. With limited time to meet, you need to keep it moving. People tend to want to hash everything out in the moment or bring in issues unrelated to the incident or exercise. If a participant won’t let an issue go, you can say “I’m sorry. This is a great topic, but time won’t let us explore it further. I’m going to add it to the parking lot so we can capture it to work on in the near future.” You then write it on the designated portion of the whiteboard or an easel pad dedicated to the purpose.

If you made it this far, thanks for reading. If you have any feedback or suggestions for other topics for me to ponder feel free to send me an email.

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