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Managing the Unexpected Resilient Performance in an Age of Uncertainty

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• You can’t plan for everything. Something unexpected will always happen, from
hurricanes to product errors.
• Planning can actually get in the way of useful responses, because people see the
world through the lens of their plans and interpret events to fi t their expectations.
• The more volatile your work environment, the more important it is to respond well
in the moment.
• To make your organization more reliable, anticipate and track failures. Determine
what they teach you.
• Focus on operations, rather than strategy.
• To become more resilient, emphasize learning, fast communication and adaptation.
• The person making decisions about how to solve a problem should be the person
who knows the most about it – not the person who’s highest in the hierarchy.
• To build awareness, audit your organization’s current practices.
• To make your organization more mindful, don’t oversimplify.
• Real mindfulness may require changing your organizational culture.
7 9 7 7
Managing the Unexpected
Resilient Performance in an Age of Uncertainty
by Karl E. Weick and Kathleen M. Sutcliffe
Jossey-Bass © 2007
208 pages
Leadership & Management
Strategy
Sales & Marketing
Finance
Human Resources
IT, Production & Logistics
Career Development
Small Business
Economics & Politics
Industries
Intercultural Management
Concepts & Trends
This summary is restricted to the personal use of Andres Villalaz (andres.villalaz@forbo.com)
Managing the Unexpected © Copyright 2009 getAbstract 2 of 5
Relevance
What You Will Learn
In this Abstract, you will learn: 1) Why no organization can plan for everything; 2) How
“High Reliability Organizations” approach unexpected crises; and 3) How to make your
organization more mindful and more resilient.
Recommendation
Karl E. Weick and Kathleen M. Sutcliffe give readers something new and useful in this
book. Countless manuals explain how to plan for crises and make it sound like everything
will go smoothly if you just plan correctly. Weick and Sutcliffe know better. Planning,
they say, may even stand in the way of smooth processes and can be the cause of failure.
They base this discussion on their studies of “high reliability organizations” (HROs),
like fi re ghting units and aircraft carrier crews, organizations where the unexpected
is common, small events make a difference, failure is a strong possibility and lives are
on the line. From those examples, they deduce principles for planning, preparation and
action that will apply to any company facing change. The book is not perfect – the
authors overuse quotations and rely on buzzwords that don’t add much – but it addresses
often-neglected aspects of management. getAbstract recommends it to anyone who is
trying to make an organization more reliable and resilient amid change.
Abstract
Learning from High Reliability Organizations
Things you don’t expect to occur actually happen to you every day. Most surprises are
minor, like a staff confl ict, but some aren’t, like a blizzard. Some test your organization to
the verge of destruction. You can’t plan for the unexpected, and in many cases, planning
actually sets you up to respond incorrectly. You make assumptions about how the world
is and what’s likely to happen. Unfortunately, many people try to make their worldview
match their expectations, and thus ignore or distort signs that something different is
happening. People look for confi rmation that they’re correct, not that they’re wrong.
Planning focuses organizational action on specifi c, anticipated areas, which shuts down
improvisation. When people plan, they also tend to “repeat patterns of activity that have
worked in the past.” That works well if things stay the same – but when they change and the
unexpected erupts, you are left executing solutions that don’t really fi t your new situation.
Consider organizations such as hospital emergency departments or nuclear power plants,
which have to cope with extraordinary situations on a regular basis. These organizations
have learned to deal regularly with challenging, disruptive events. They have adapted
so that they react appropriately to the unexpected. They recognize that planning can
only take an organization so far. After that, the way it responds to crisis determines its
success. Your company can learn from the way these “high reliability organizations”
(HROs) respond to crises, and, more generally, you can use their organizing principles in
your own organization. Five core principles guide these HROs. The fi rst three emphasize
anticipating problems; the last two emphasize containing problems after they happen:
1. HROs monitor “small failures” – If something minor goes wrong, HROs don’t just
shrug it off. If you’re fi ghting forest res or landing planes on aircraft carriers, you can’t
“If you want
to manage the
unexpected,
you have to
understand, fi rst,
how…expectations
work and, second,
how to engage
them mindfully.”
“If you’re like most
organizations, you
want to rapidly
become reliable
and improve your
performance. But
all too often there
is limited time for
improving.”
Managing the Unexpected © Copyright 2009 getAbstract 3 of 5
ignore a small glitch because it could lead to serious repercussions, even death. HROs
examine each small failure to see if it indicates a failure in the system. They ferret out
causes to make sure that small malfunctions are not signs of larger faults. They track
down the origins of current glitches to see if they might signal serious future issues.
Start working on “detecting failure” by using a simple checklist to identify practices
that tend to generate problems. For example, when you change supervisors, more
glitches are likely in the new boss’s area. Likewise, when people try to do too much
or race to meet deadlines, trouble is more likely. Youre likely to encounter problems
when people don’t share the same perspective about a mutual task. Look for potential
failures in three realms: the most critical areas, the most frequently completed tasks
and the places where human choices most affect the system. Imagine what might go
wrong and where it is likely to happen. Reward people for admitting mistakes.
2. HROs are “reluctant to accept simplifi cation” – Simplifi cation is good and
necessary. You need it for order and clarity, and for developing routines your
organization can follow. However, if you simplify things too much or too quickly
you may omit crucial data and obscure essential, information you need for problem
solving. Labeling things to put them in conceptual categories can lead to dangerous
oversimpli cation. NASA’s practice of classifying known glitches as “in-family”
and new problems as “out-of-family” contributed to the Columbia disaster. By
miscategorizing the damage to the shuttle as a maintenance-level “tile problem,
people downplayed its importance. To reduce such labeling danger, use hands-on
observation. When things go wrong, don’t count on one observer; make sure people
from varied background s have time to d iscuss it at le ngth. Re - exa mine the categories
your organization uses and “differentiate them into subcategories,” so nothing gets
hidden or blurred.
3. HROs remain “sensitive to operations” – Stay focused on the actual situation as
it is happening. Of course, aircraft carrier crewmembers, for instance, should align
their actions with the larger strategic picture – but they can’t focus there. They must
keep their focus on the airplanes that are taking off and landing on their deck. They
have to pay attention to “the messy reality” of what’s actually happening. To improve
your focus, refuse to elevate quantitative knowledge above qualitative and experiential
knowledge. Weigh both equally. When you have “close calls,” learn the right lessons
from them. Close calls don’t prove that the system is working because you didn’t crash.
Close calls show that something’s wrong with the system since you almost crashed.
4. HROs develop and maintain “a commitment to resilience” – When the pressure
is off, you might be able to believe that you’ve developed a perfect system that will
never have to change. HROs know better. They regularly put their systems under
incredible stress and unforeseen circumstances do arise. HROs know they have
to adapt continually to changing circumstances. Resilience consists of three core
capabilities. Your organization is resilient if it can “absorb strain” and keep working,
even when things are hard, if it can “bounce back” from crises and if it can learn from
them. HRO leaders celebrate when their organizations handle crises well, because
it proves their resilience. Encourage people to share what they know and what they
learn from crises. Speed up communication. Emphasize reducing the impact of crises.
Practice mindfulness. Keep “uncommitted resources” ready to put into action when
a crisis erupts. Structure your organization so that those who know what to do in a
specifi c situation can take the lead, rather than hewing to a set hierarchy.
5. HROs practice “deference to expertise” – Avoid assuming that a direct relationship
exists between your organization’s formal hierarchy and which person knows best
“Unexpected
events often audit
our resilience.
They affect how
much we stretch
without breaking
and then how well
we recover.”
“Mindfulness…is
about the ability
of a system to
concentrate on
what is going on
here and now.”
“Mindfulness
conveys a mental
orientation toward
continually refi ning
and differentiating
categories,
an ongoing
willingness…to
invent new
categories that
carve events into
more meaningful
sequences, and
a more nuanced
appreciation
of context.”
“There is no
question that when
you organize,
you simplify. But
you don’t need to
simplify casually or
habitually
or instantly.”
Managing the Unexpected © Copyright 2009 getAbstract 4 of 5
what to do in a crisis. Often speci c individuals possess deep expertise or situational
knowledge that should leapfrog the hierarchy, so put them in charge of relevant
major decisions. To increase your organizations deference to expertise, focus on
what the system knows and can handle, rather than taking pride in what you or any
other individual knows and does. Recognize that expertise is “not simply an issue
of content knowledge.” Instead, it consists of knowledge plus “credibility, trust and
attentiveness.” Recognize and share what you know, even when people don’t want to
hear it – but also know your limits and hand off authority when you reach them.
Auditing Your Organization for Mindfulness
You cant shut your organization down and redesign it as an HRO, so nd ways to
rede sign it w hile it is f unct ion ing. St ar t by auditing yo ur cu rr ent p ra ctices f ro m numerou s
perspectives. These audits themselves will increase mindfulness. Ask questions to
get people talking. As you review past crises as learning opportunities, youll start
developing resilience. Study how much people in your organization agree and where
agreement clusters. People at HROs tend to agree across their organizations’ different
levels, so you have a problem if managers and front line workers disagree. Heed the areas
where people disagree most about what to do or how the organization should function.
See which aspects of reliability are strengths for you. Do you anticipate problems better
(good planning)? Or are you bet ter at containing t hem ( good res pon sivene ss) ? Deter mi ne
which audit fi ndings are upsetting and “where you could be most mindful.” Ask:
Where are you now? – Examine how mindful your fi rm is now. Do you actively
pay attention to potential problems? Does everyone agree what is most likely to go
wrong? Do you all attend to potential problem areas to make the fi rm more reliable?
How mindless are you? – Do you pressure people to do things the same way all
the time or to work without needed information or training? Do you push people to
produce without independent discretion? Such practices lead toward mindlessness.
Where do “you need to be most mindful?– Things are likelier to go unexpectedly
wrong when your processes are “tightly coupled” and “interactively complex,” as in
a nuclear power plant. Look for these qualities to see where you need to be most
intensely mindful. If you can work in linear units that you fully understand without
feedback from one unit to the next, you need comparatively little mindfulness. But,
if your processes demand coordination and cooperation, or if you’re a start-up and
don’t yet have all of your systems fully in place, feedback must fl ow. That’s when you
need mindfulness most.
Does your organization obsess over failure? – Encourage people to envision
things that might go wrong and head them off. Ask yourself how consciously you
seek potential failures. When something happens that you didn’t expect, does your
organization fi gure out why? When you barely avoid a catastrophe, do you investigate
why things almost went wrong, and learn from them? Do you change procedures to
refl ect your new understanding? On a simpler level, can people in your organization
talk openly about failure? Do they report things that have gone awry?
Does your organization resist simplifi cation? – Rather than assuming that your
organization knows itself and has the correct perspective, challenge the routine.
This won’t always make for the most comfortable workplace, but you must pay
attention to real complexity. What do you take for granted? (Your goal is to be able to
answer “nothing.”) Push people to analyze events below the surface. To deepen their
understanding, people must trust and respect each other, even when they disagree.
“Part of what
distinguishes
high reliability
organizations from
other organizations
is the extent to
which they obsess
over the question
of what to ignore.”
“HROs…are
responsive to the
messy reality inside
most systems.”
“The brief
period after you
have fi nished
the mindfulness
audits is a lot like
the period right
after the chaos
of a battle on the
battlefi eld. There
are truths lying
around everywhere
that may be picked
up for the asking.”
“Skeptics,
curmudgeons,
and iconoclasts
are welcome
in a mindful
system, even if
their presence
is not always
pleasurable.”
Managing the Unexpected © Copyright 2009 getAbstract 5 of 5
Does your organization focus on operations? – Thinking about the big strategic
picture is a lot of fun – but to be resilient, you need to monitor what is actually
happening now, rather than assuming things are running smoothly. Seek feedback.
Make sure people meet regularly with co-workers organization-wide, so they get a
clearer overall picture.
Are you committed to becoming more resilient? – HROs show their commitment to
resilience by funding training so people can develop their capacities. You want people
to know as many jobs and processes as possible. Besides formal training, encourage
people who meet “stretch” goals, use knowledge and solve problems.
Does your organi zation defer to expertise? – How much do people want to do their
jobs well? Do they respect each other and defer to those who know an issue best?
Building a Mindful Organizational Culture
If you’re the only person in your company dedicated to mindfulness, the dominant
“organizational culture” will swamp your good intentions. To make your organization
more like an HRO, help it adopt an “informed culture” with these “four subcultures”:
1. A “reporting culture” – People share their accounts of what went wrong.
2. A “just culture” – The organization treats people fairly. Defi ne “acceptable and
unacceptable” action and do not punish failures that arise from acceptable behavior.
When something goes wrong, seek reasons, not scapegoats.
3. A “fl exible culture I f yo ur wo rk is ver y v ar ia bl e, li ke ghting res, don’t depend on a
rigid, slow hierarchy. Foster individual discretion and variation instead of uniformity.
4. A “learning culture” – Increase everyone’s capacity; provide opportunities for
people to share information.
Your organization’s culture manifests at several levels. It ascends from the level of
physical objects, which can symbolize a corporate personality, to linked processes and
then up to the level of abstractions, like shared values and assumptions.Artifacts are
the easiest to change, assumptions the hardest.” Top managers must consistently model
and communicate the changes they want. State your desired beliefs and practices, give
employees feedback and reward those who succeed.
As you move into implementing new activities, follow a “small wins strategy,” focusing
on attainable goals. Start with the “after action review” in which people compare what
they did in a crisis to what they intended to do, why it differed and how they’ll act in the
future. Encourage people to share details, rather than glossing over specifi cs. Support
those who try to be more mindful, since being mindless is so much easier. Help them by
verbally reframing objectives. For example, reword current “goals in the form of mistakes
that must not occur.” Defi ne what having a “near miss” means and what constitutes
“good news.” If no accident report is fi led, is that good – or does it mean things are being
brushed under the rug? Train people in interpersonal skills and encourage skepticism. To
raise awareness of potential glitches, ask employees what unexpected occurrences they’ve
seen. Meet with people face to face to get the nuances they communicate nonverbally.
About the Authors
Karl E. Weick wrote The Social Psychology of Organizing. He teaches at the University of
Michigan’s Ross School of Business, where Kathleen M. Sutcliffe is the associate dean.
“By defi nition,
errors, surprises
and the unexpected
are diffi cult to
anticipate.”
“HROs are…
preoccupied with
events that deviate
from what they
expected, especially
deviations that
foreshadow
strategically
signifi cant
failures.”
“Churchill’s audit
consisted of four
questions: Why
didn’t I know?
Why didn’t my
advisors know?
Why wasn’t I told?
Why didn’t I ask?”
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Chapter
In this final chapter we performed a grounded-theory analysis of the 19 content chapters of this book. We identified 18 grounded theory categories that summarize major themes in the book and grouped them accordingly. The core element of grounded theory is a focus on the emergence of theory from the data (here, the data are chapters) while remaining open to all possible meanings and interpretations of data (Treem & Browning. Grounded theory. In C. Scott & L. Lewis (Eds.), The international encyclopedia of organizational communication. Wiley, 2017). We looked for likenesses among the 19 content chapters and linked them to one or more of the 18 categories elaborated in this final chapter. A fairly disparate group of scholar-researchers began off with exactly the same set of research questions and produced a pleasingly varied—and pleasingly complex—set of answers. Yet the chapters also illustrate the concept: equifinality—namely, they all eventually arrive at pretty much the same place. Important for our purposes here, they have integrative complexity, in which chapter complexity can be represented by the number of different positions created to represent them and the order necessary to integrate them. Our conclusion is that organizational communication technology (OCT) serves as the integrator for the complexity surrounding work life during early stages of coronavirus.
Chapter
Managing and making sense of (un)expected unfolding events during the pandemic has required a balance between change and stability while remaining vigilant and defensive. With no experience in crisis management, my approach to ensure “business as usual” in education at the Business School, Nord university was colored by “learning by doing” based on the terms given by the corona virus. Managing faculty employees and students in the digital space from my home kitchen table. I brought my private mindful practice into my management, enhancing my capacity for attention and awareness to the multifaceted consequences of the pandemic in the many aspects of our educational activities. Mindfulness also enhanced my capacity for resilience to deal with the many surprises and high stress level over a long period of time. But resilience is not inexhaustible, and defeat can be triggered by small insignificant trifle. Exactly one year after the Norwegian government first enforced a national lockdown on us to curb the COVID-19 pandemic, the government overrode its own infection control initiatives in the Bodø municipality and enforced yet another lockdown because of a new spike, making me lapse from a mindful mental state to a mindless management of the crisis.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any references for this publication.