Delighted to work for $2 a day?

In 2015, the Californian state department had two inter-connected problems. Firstly, the coffers were more or less empty, and secondly the state was being hit by a spate of major forest fires, caused by one of the worst draughts in living memory. So the problem facing them was this: “How can we attend to the fires when we can’t afford to recruit any more firefighters?”

Photo by Carlo Allegri/Getty Images News / Getty Images

Photo by Carlo Allegri/Getty Images News / Getty Images

The problem is indicative of what most businesses face. Ambitions (growth, sales, profits etc.) are often high, but constraints (budget, resource, expertise etc.) are often ambition-limiting. So the knee-jerk reaction is either to dull down ambitions, or fight the constraints or a combination of both.

Is there another way?

Back to California. They had no choice as far as putting out the forest fires was concerned, but instead of complaining about their budget limitation, they embraced it and set themselves a challenge:

“How can we put out every single forest fire by paying firefighters only $2/day”

This became their Propelling Question. ‘Question’ because this challenge needed answering and ‘propelling’ because it was going to propel them towards a compelling solution.

Instead of fighting the ‘$2/day’ constraint, instead they embraced it. Where could they find people who would be happy, in fact delighted, to be a firefighter for $2/day? Where could they find an abundant supply of willing resource………………?

4,000 inmates were the answer. Not only was this population in abundance, but they were also willing, able and available to work at $2/day as the going rate was about 10-35 cents for a normal paid job in prison. However, by embracing the constraint to find an innovative solution, there were also some additional benefits for both the prisoners and the state that were not obvious at the outset.

  • The incarcerated firefighters were able to earn two days off their sentence for every day they were on a fire
  • Food was better because of the additional calories firefighters need to sustain them
  • Extra facilities such as weights room, pool table and hobby area were provided
  • The skills learned as a result meant that it was easier for the prisoners to get a job when they were on the outside, therefore reducing the likelihood of re-offending or re-incarceration
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News / Getty Images
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News / Getty Images

Three key take outs

  1. Where there is a significant constraint that is hindering ambition, it is important to marry these two together in the form of a Propelling Question - “How can we put out every single forest fire (ambition) by paying firefighters only $2/day?” (constraint)
  2. Don’t dampen down your ambition, possibly even raise it. Don’t fight the constraint, possibly make it even thornier! Both sides are equally important. The tension between them makes it more powerful, forces discomfort
  3. Then use the Propelling Question as a springboard to break out of normal thinking pathways and develop innovative solutions that may well yield more benefits than you were expecting.

Two bits of fire-fighting news to end with….

Firstly, the initiative is by no means men only. Check out the Malibu female inmate crew:


Secondly, a report from Fox News in September 2016 announced that the California Conservation Corps, faced with a dwindling pool of available inmates, had just re-opened a camp to train young civilians to do the same job.

Another solution to the same Propelling Question?

Mark Simmonds