The hypothermia example

One commonly discussed problem concerns parties with a large proportion of inexperienced members in which several are beginning to be affected by hypothermia.

The weather is appalling and the party is heading towards home at the end of a trip, but will take an hour or more to reach safety. Work through this scenario yourself. The stakes are as high as they can be, and the immediate problem, preserving lives, is not the only one. Others include:

  • deciding whether to stay or move
  • maintaining morale
  • conserving the strength of all the members
  • assessing the necessity for raising the alarm and weighing this against the costs and benefits of allowing the alarm to be raised when you are overdue.

As time goes on, whether you do something, nothing or simply take time thinking, the situation changes:

  • more may become affected by hypothermia
  • for those affected, hypothermia becomes deeper
  • the group’s capacity to act becomes diminished with time
  • the weather may get worse (or better).

Each course of action taken by you or available to you to fulfil a necessary goal conflicts with another necessary goal. For example:

  • you may modify the effects of the weather by putting up tents or digging in (but now your progress is zero)
  • some of your more experienced party members may go for help (but your resources to deal with problems in the main party are diminished)
  • you may continue to head for home (but your party members will become progressively worse)
  • if that wasn’t bad enough, you really don’t know how long any of your party members can safely endure the current conditions—time is at a premium, and you don’t know how much you’ve got.

The characteristics of the important problems that a leader will face have been outlined and the question of how to deal with them now arises. People whose daily work entails problem solving of this type and importance, notably firefighters, usually say that when they fight fires they do not make choices or develop and evaluate options, they act on their experience and generate a plan of action, modifying it as the situation develops. They rarely compare even two options and find that the time spent in analysis and evaluation leads to the situation developing out of their control.