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Expecting the Unexpected? How SWAT Officers and Film Crews Handle Surprises


Abstract and Figures

Organizations increasingly face surprises with regularity, yet little is known about how they develop the responses to unexpected events that enable their work to continue. We compare ethnographic data from two types of organizations that regularly deal with surprises, a police SWAT team and film production crews. We find that individuals engage in organizational bricolage, restructuring their activities by role shifting, reorganizing routines, and reassembling the work. Organizational bricolage depends on the sociocognitive resources that group members develop by drafting agreement on the work, reinforcing and elaborating task activities, and building cross-member expertise.
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University of California, Davis
University of Utah
Organizations increasingly face surprises with regularity, yet little is known about
how they develop the responses to unexpected events that enable their work to
continue. We compare ethnographic data from two types of organizations that regu-
larly deal with surprises, a police SWAT team and film production crews. We find that
individuals engage in organizational bricolage, restructuring their activities by role
shifting, reorganizing routines, and reassembling the work. Organizational bricolage
depends on the sociocognitive resources that group members develop by drafting
agreement on the work, reinforcing and elaborating task activities, and building
cross-member expertise.
On the set of a horror film, three weeks’ worth of
scenes were filmed in the rooms of a large mansion.
During the first week, the crew was shooting a dra-
matic slaughter scene on the top floor, in which the
victim was electrocuted while falling into a hot tub.
However, the crew forgot to account for displace-
ment and as the actor in the scene fell into the hot
tub, the water overflowed, spreading over the floor.
As the water cascaded down through the glass chan-
delier in the mansion’s entryway, a production as-
sistant announced over the walkie-talkie, “I’m on
the first floor and there is water dripping on my
head!” The flood shorted out the electricity in the
entire mansion, halting production.
In preparing to execute a search warrant on a sus-
pected drug house, officers on the SWAT team re-
viewed pictures, film, and diagrams of the location.
With this information, the team sketched out the
approach they would take during entry, and agreed
on how they would distribute themselves inside the
location once they broke the door down. During the
drug raid, after the officers rammed the door down,
they found that the suspects had modified the inside
layout of the apartment and the walls and rooms
were not in the configuration they expected. As the
officer describing the event noted, “You expect a
hallway, and there’s a wall.”
Scholars have begun to devote attention to sur-
prise as an important part of organizational life
(Lampel & Shapira, 2001; Weick, 1995; Weick &
Sutcliffe, 2001). A surprise is a break in expecta-
tions that comes from situations that are not antic-
ipated or do not advance as planned (Cunha, Clegg,
& Kamoche, 2006) and encompasses any element
within an organization that is unexpected and
draws attention away from the standard progres-
sion of the work. Surprises are interesting because
they exemplify the remarkable ways in which or-
ganizations face uncertainty and adapt, offering
opportunities for exploration of organizations’ po-
tential for “robust action” (McDaniel, Jordan, &
Fleeman, 2003; Weick & Sutcliffe, 2001).
Scholars have characterized surprises in terms of
variation in both their sources and their outcomes.
Surprises are generated by events as well as pro-
cesses (Cunha et al., 2006) and can emerge from
situations of limited knowledge and system com-
plexity (McDaniel et al., 2003). Surprises also differ
in their consequences for organization members,
which vary in part on the degree to which a collec-
tive understanding of a situation falls apart (Weick,
1993). At their most negative, surprises that consti-
tute “cosmology events,” such as the Mann Gulch
blaze described by Weick (1993), can overwhelm
organization members, with devastating results. A
more commonplace—and positive—outcome of
surprises is organization members’ mindful engage-
ment with situations, coupled with recognition of a
need for change and action (Jett & George, 2003).
For instance, the unexpected injuries that trauma
teams deal with do not directly threaten organiza-
tion members, but do drive them to action (Klein,
Ziegert, Knight, & Xiao, 2006).
Most organizations face unexpected events of the
less catastrophic variety. And whether surprises
arise from internal complexity and lack of fore-
sight, as in the film crew example above, or from
external events, as in the SWAT team example,
Both excerpts are from the authors’ field notes.
Academy of Management Journal
2011, Vol. 54, No. 2, 239–261.
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members of organizations need to respond in ways
that enable their work to continue. When the elec-
tricity goes out, a film crew does not simply stop for
the day but instead works to resume shooting as
soon as possible. Similarly, regardless of whether
the house is configured as expected, SWAT officers
press on to arrest the drug suspects. Film crews and
SWAT officers encounter surprises such as these as
a regular part of their experience. Regrettably, re-
searchers know less than we should about what
enables these and other organizations to handle
unexpected events and readily continue their work.
If, as some have argued, organizations are in-
creasingly facing surprises (Cunha et al., 2006;
Scott, 2004), it becomes important to go beyond
charting variation in surprises to delve into what
makes organizations capable of robust action when
they occur. In this article, we are interested in
determining how organizations that regularly and
successfully respond to surprise are prepared to
shift their work as their circumstances change.
How do organizations develop the collective re-
sources needed to continue with their work after
encountering a surprise? Answering this question
requires not only studying organization members’
responses to the unexpected, but also investigating
the processes that enable them to be responsive. To
explore this question, we compared the practices of
two types of organizations that expected, antici-
pated, and sometimes embraced, the unexpected:
film production crews and a SWAT team. These
two organizations closely interacted with their en-
vironments and treated surprises as a routine part
of their daily activities. We found that they used
organizational bricolage to respond to surprises by
shifting roles, reorganizing routines, and reassem-
bling their work. We identify the processes that
enabled them to respond to surprises and continue
their work, showing how these organizations devel-
oped a set of sociocognitive resources to draw on
when engaging in bricolage.
Scholars have found that when surprises disrupt
expectations, organization members respond by en-
gaging in problem solving and trying to recreate the
order that has been lost. To be able to quickly
resume their work, they must have both the ability
and the resources to respond to new conditions in
an emergent manner. For instance, studies of “high-
reliability” organizations that face surprises depict
resilience as the product of developing the ability
to detect, contain, and rebound from problems (We-
ick & Sutcliffe, 2001). Resilience is characterized by
mindfulness, which engenders an appreciation for
the details of a situation (Langer, 1989; Weick &
Sutcliffe, 2001). It is enacted through improvisa-
tional action in which “knowledgeable people self
organize into ad hoc networks to provide expert
problem solving” (Weick, Sutcliffe, & Obstfeld,
1999: 100).
Improvisational action is particularly important
in organizations that are trying to innovate. In these
cases, improvisational organizational action leads
to learning, problem solving, and change (Barrett,
1998; Eisenhardt & Brown, 1998; Weick, 1998). For
example, Miner, Bassoff, and Moorman (2001: 314)
showed that organizational improvisation, “the de-
liberate and substantive fusion of the design and
execution of a novel production,” is a responsive
form of real-time organizational learning. They
demonstrated that when facing design issues, tim-
ing problems, and unanticipated customer-gener-
ated opportunities, organizations create novel be-
haviors, artifacts, and interpretations that enable
them to respond (Miner et al., 2001).
Bricolage also has been shown to help individu-
als and organizations innovate and harness entre-
preneurial opportunities (Baker & Nelson, 2005;
Barrett, 1998; Moorman & Miner, 1998; Weick,
1993). Building on Levi-Strauss (1966), Baker and
Nelson defined bricolage as “making do by apply-
ing combinations of the resources at hand to new
problems and opportunities” (2005: 331). Although
the literature on improvisation has a focus on novel
outcomes and solutions, scholars studying brico-
lage emphasize the antecedents of those responses
and outcomes. A central element in bricolage is the
ability of bricoleurs to draw from the pool of re-
sources at hand to assemble products or processes
that respond to situations they encounter (Baker &
Nelson, 2005; Miner et al., 2001). This enables bri-
coleurs to use a set of resources accumulated
through experience (Orr, 1990) to routinely create
order out of chaotic conditions (Weick, 1993).
Whether people in organizations engage in mind-
fulness, improvisation, or bricolage in response to
uncertain or surprising situations, their emergent
action is supported by the presence of preexisting
organizational resources. Responses to surprise
rely on elements already available in an organiza-
tion—the material, social, and cognitive resources
accumulated through its daily work (Baker & Nel-
son, 2005; Miner et al., 2001). Organizations stock-
pile troves of supplies and the tools needed to make
use of them, building up material resources
through their regular activities. Entrepreneurial bri-
coleurs might combine spare electronics compo-
nents to begin a new business troubleshooting un-
derground cables (Baker & Nelson, 2005) or use
available wood and lorry gears to build wind tur-
240 AprilAcademy of Management Journal
bines (Garud & Karnoe, 2003). Likewise, incident
response teams, knowing they will face large fire
emergencies, keep trucks laden with equipment
and tools at the ready (Bigley & Roberts, 2001).
A second set of resources is located in social and
cognitive processes. For instance, Moorman and
Miner (1998) argued that the procedural and de-
clarative memory of an organization can affect the
coherence, novelty, and speed of improvisation. In
the same fashion, effective jazz improvisation de-
pends upon players’ collective knowledge of jazz
grammar and syntax—the patterns of musical pro-
gression, “licks,” and phrases of jazz masters—that
musicians use as a base for their shared improvisa-
tional work (Barrett, 1998; Bastien & Hostager,
1988). Social and cognitive resources are also
needed for organizations to respond to crises. Stud-
ies of disaster preparedness and hospital teams, for
instance, have shown that having prearranged pro-
tocols helps organizations structure responses to
emerging demands (Bigley & Roberts, 2001; Faraj &
Xiao, 2006). Similarly, shared role systems have
been found to enable action in response to dynam-
ically evolving situations facing medical trauma
teams, ship navigators, and firefighters (Hutchins,
1990; Klein, Ziegert, Knight, & Xiao, 2006; Weick,
1993). And Majchrak, Jarvenpaa, and Hollingshead
(2007) argued that group-level cognitive systems
could prove vital for responding to disasters.
Taken together, these prior studies suggest that
the material, social, and cognitive resources in or-
ganizations warrant attention, as they can be im-
portant tools for responding to unexpected situa-
tions facing organizations. However, research is
less informative about the creation and accumula-
tion of these resources, especially the social and
cognitive processes involved. For instance, Bigley
and Roberts (2001) described the structuring mech-
anisms, constrained improvisation, and cognition
management methods of teams responding to emer-
gency situations, but they touched only briefly on
implications for organizations trying to develop the
resources to implement these systems. Similarly,
the work of Miner and colleagues (Miner et al.,
2001; Moorman & Miner, 1998) shows the benefits
of cognitive resources such as organizational mem-
ory for improvisational action, but this work does
not explain how organizations develop that collec-
tive knowledge. Finally, although scholars describe
the troves of resources used in bricolage (Baker &
Nelson, 2005; Ciborra, 1996), they have paid little
conceptual attention to the processes by which or-
ganizations build the social and cognitive capacity
to engage in bricolage.
In this study, by comparing how two organiza-
tions regularly respond to surprises, we pinpoint
the processes that enable them to handle unex-
pected events in the course of their activities. We
find that what enables a SWAT team’s and a film
crew’s organizational bricolage in response to sur-
prises are sociocognitive resources: the collectively
held knowledge about how a task is performed and
how activities advance. We demonstrate how these
sociocognitive resources develop during ongoing
organizational activities such as drafting agreement
on work, reinforcing and elaborating task activities,
and building cross-member expertise. Comparing
the processes of two types of organizations also
allows us to focus close attention on the role that
the structural context has in shaping responsive-
ness, showing how the features of the work influ-
ence how groups respond to the unexpected events
they face.
To understand how organizations respond to sur-
prise, we investigated two settings in which uncer-
tainty was pervasive and, as a consequence, sur-
prises occurred with some regularity. A police
SWAT team is an ongoing group of officers orga-
nized to respond to situations in which the typical
training of police officers is insufficient, such as
situations that threaten high levels of force or vio-
lence, those involving multiple suspects, and
drawn-out situations in which patience and quick
action may both be desirable. In this context, sur-
prises appear as breaks in members’ expectations of
how the mission is unfolding. Thus, surprises can
include mistakes, changes in suspects’ behavior,
such as taking hostages in response to the officers’
actions, and other changes in the environment.
Film productions are structured as temporary or-
ganizations in which an occupationally specialized
set of participants come together to produce a sin-
gle film and disband once the task is completed. In
film sets, surprises appear as breaks in members’
expectations of how the different aspects of the
work of the film crew will progress. As for SWAT
teams, surprises include not only mistakes and
changes in the organizational environment, but
also unexpected difficulties in crafting an original
product, such as dealing with animals or working
to implement a director’s artistic vision of a scene.
These two settings provided abundant opportu-
nities to gather data on surprises and how the or-
ganizations prepared for and responded to them.
People in both settings were often challenged by
events in their environment and in the execution of
their work that could impede their progress. Al-
though surprises were expected, it was impossible
for people to know in advance the form a surprise
2011 241Bechky and Okhuysen
would take, what its source would be, or which
members it might involve. Moreover, organization
members faced severe time pressure as they carried
out their tasks. As a consequence, their responses
quickly followed these unexpected events, making
the link between surprises and responses to them
evident. Thus, these were ideal settings in which to
explore how people responded to and prepared for
surprises, as they provided many opportunities to
observe these processes in depth. Below, we de-
scribe how we collected the data on these processes
and discuss the differences and similarities in these
two settings in more detail.
Data Collection
We gathered the data for this analysis in separate
studies of one SWAT team and four film produc-
tion crews. In both cases, we focused on developing
an in-depth understanding of how the ongoing day-
to-day work of these groups was accomplished.
SWAT team. Our data were drawn from a police
department in a suburb of a large metropolitan city
in the U.S. South. All 18 members of the SWAT
team agreed to participate in interviews. The tenure
of members on the team ranged from one month to
17 years; however, 12 of the officers had been on
the team for more than 5 years. Officers partici-
pated in semistructured interviews lasting between
45 minutes and three hours. The second author
(Gerardo) conducted 22 interviews over a three-
month period, focusing on the tasks of the group
and including descriptions of possible missions for
the team and details about typical training days.
Interviews also covered the goals of the team, its
composition, and its structure. The interviews pro-
gressed to questions regarding the tasks and roles of
each interviewee within the team, which elicited
detailed descriptions of activities that the individ-
ual engaged in. For example, marksmen were asked
to describe how their role was different from others
on the SWAT team, what additional training they
participated in, and what special responsibilities
the position entailed during different types of mis-
sions. In our presentation of findings, the data on
the police SWAT team are drawn from interview
transcripts unless otherwise specified.
Data collection also involved observation during
three briefing and four training sessions. During
these sessions, Gerardo observed the activities that
individuals were engaged in, took field notes, and
transcribed them each evening. However, he was
not able to accompany the team on missions, be-
cause of the inherent danger. Of particular note are
the training sessions, where it was possible to ob-
serve how officers reacted to surprise and where
they spent time describing situations where sur-
prises had occurred. Gerardo also engaged in con-
versations with individual officers to follow up on
activities during training. Finally, he gathered
archival information, including a “Manual for
SWAT” describing this particular team’s organiza-
tion, training schedules, and certification guide-
lines, as well as tactical officer magazines, televi-
sion documentaries, and archival material for
SWAT teams in general.
Film production. The first author (Beth) con-
ducted an ethnographic study of four different film
sets. Two of these were small, short-term produc-
tions. One was a commercial for a telephone com-
pany that took place over several days and involved
50 people, and one was a music video filmed over
five days with a crew of 35 people. Two sites were
sets for full-length movies, including an indepen-
dently produced horror movie with a budget of $2
million lasting five weeks and involving 50 crew
members, and a movie backed by a major Holly-
wood studio with a budget of over $100 million and
a crew of 175 members, which shot on location for
six weeks.
Beth was a participant observer in all four proj-
ects. In three of them, she worked as a production
assistant, completing duties such as making copies,
helping individual departments (e.g., lighting and
wardrobe), “locking up” locations, and running er-
rands. At the fourth site, she was an observer and
assisted the office production crew as needed. On
the set, Beth would jot field notes in a small pad,
focusing on the content of interactions between
informants, and she would then expand these notes
every night. Participant observation allowed her to
gather substantial data on how crew members’
daily activities contributed to their responses to
surprises. In our presentation of findings, the data
on film sets are drawn from the expanded field
notes unless otherwise specified.
Beth also gathered archival material, such as
daily schedules and scripts from each of the proj-
ects, as well as published insider accounts and
documentaries about the film industry. She infor-
mally interviewed members of the film crews
multiple times during shooting. Unstructured in-
terviews of three production managers, two inde-
pendent producers, and two studio executives un-
connected to these projects provided additional
information about how crew members dealt with
the uncertainty of the work.
Research Settings
Like many organizations, the film production
crews and the SWAT team worked on tasks whose
242 AprilAcademy of Management Journal
complexity dictates specialization and high inter-
dependence. Here, we briefly explore the common-
alities in and differences between the two settings
to lay the groundwork for understanding how they
developed responses to surprise; Table 1 gives
more details. Two theoretical similarities make
these particular organizations interesting and
unique. First, both the film crews and the SWAT
team operated under pervasive uncertainty with
both internal and external sources. This uncer-
tainty was internally driven both by the potential
for mistakes and the simultaneity in the execution
of tasks, which made coordination errors likely.
Moreover, both organizational types faced uncer-
tainty stemming from their exposure to the external
environment, particularly the weather, since tasks
were often completed outdoors. Second, time pres-
sure for quick execution constrained the tasks car-
ried out by both SWAT team and film crews, albeit
for different reasons. The film crew members were
concerned that longer schedules would cost more
money, and the SWAT team members were worried
about increasing levels of danger as time passed.
Three key dimensions of difference between the
settings are also important for understanding the
context in which organization members prepared
for and responded to surprise: the negative conse-
quences of surprises, the continuity of member-
ship, and the temporal pattern of the work. First,
the negative consequences of unexpected events
were qualitatively different. For the film crews,
these consequences were mostly cost-based, but for
the police team the consequences—potential phys-
ical harm or even death—were more severe. The
SWAT team and the film productions also differed
in terms of continuity of membership: officers
maintained long tenure and stable membership on
their team, but film crews worked on temporary
Commonalities and Differences between Film Production Crews and the SWAT Team
Aspect Film Production Crews SWAT Team
Time pressure Pressure for quick execution Pressure for quick execution
Need to avoid delays in schedule because
of the significant costs of staff and
Need to execute missions quickly to reduce
danger from suspects to officers, bystanders,
and themselves
Pervasive uncertainty Internally driven Internally driven
Simultaneity of execution leads to high
potential for coordination difficulties
Simultaneity of execution leads to high
potential for coordination difficulties
Creative leeway of director and
Dependence on external environment to
complete tasks
Dependence on external environment to
complete tasks
Weather Weather
Bystanders Bystanders
Negative consequences of
Costs money Severe physical harm
Need to redo work by resetting and
reshooting a scene
Armed suspects and weaponry can lead to
physical harm or death
Need to extend the production schedule
Continuity of membership Temporary projects Coherent team with long tenure
Membership changed across projects (70
percent new to each other)
Stable membership over many years
Some roles changed across projects Attended training schools together
Work flow Single production period Short, uncertain missions
Weeks or months to finish shooting Minutes or hours of high tension, uncertainty,
and danger
Intervals of high activity interspersed
with transition periods in which crew
made changes to the set and equipment
Long periods between missions devoted to
group training and rehearsal
2011 243Bechky and Okhuysen
projects with changing membership and roles on
each project. Finally, the temporal pattern of the
work progressed differently for the two groups. The
SWAT team engaged in long periods of training and
rehearsal, punctuated by short missions under high
tension with few opportunities to pause in execu-
tion. The film productions, in contrast, were orga-
nized as single spans of weeks or months of work
but with many lulls in activity between moments of
Analytic Approach
While working on separate field-based research
projects, one a study of coordination in temporary
organizations (Bechky, 2006) and the other a study
of routines in group action (Okhuysen, 2005), we
had served as friendly readers and theoretical
sounding boards for each other. In the course of our
frequent conversations, we became aware of a strik-
ing similarity between the two settings that neither
of us was exploring in our other papers: the perva-
sive nature of surprise. This parallel led us to a
deeper exploration of similarities and differences
in the two settings that confirmed that a joint ex-
ploration of responses to surprise was possible and
potentially useful. We therefore combined the two
independently collected data sets to develop a
comparative analysis of responses to surprise.
We used a grounded theory approach (Strauss &
Corbin, 1990) to analyze how these organizations
routinely responded to surprises. This inductive
approach enabled us to uncover the processes by
which these organizations created the sociocogni-
tive resources necessary for their real-time re-
sponses. Our analysis was based on comparisons of
responses to surprises both within and between the
two settings. Although there are no established
guidelines for pooling ethnographic data sets, re-
cent work (e.g., Bechky, 2008; O’Mahony & Bechky,
2006) has followed Barley’s (1996) prescription for
comparative ethnographic analysis. We did the
same, as detailed below.
We had both conducted separate field studies, so
the analytical process began with each of us con-
ducting an emic analysis of the data that captured
the participants’ perspectives on the situations they
faced. We had separately arrived at the conclusion
that dealing with uncertainty and surprise was a
major element of the work conducted in these set-
tings. Therefore, as a first step, we collected spe-
cific instances of surprises, responses, and resolu-
tions in each of our settings.
In the next step, through a process of comparison
and contrast, we developed more generalizable cat-
egories. Pooling data for an unplanned comparative
ethnography requires a different analytic process
than that of a planned multiple case study (Eisen-
hardt, 1989). We did not have a priori categories
that we used in collecting data to frame our initial
analysis but drew instead on initial similarities
among the categories of surprises, responses, and
resolutions that we each developed. During this
step, we met often and exchanged data memos and
commentaries, cycling through the data, the emer-
gent categories in our analysis, and the literature to
develop categories to link our findings to more
generalizable concepts (Miles & Huberman, 1984).
Comparative analysis of two settings by two re-
searchers offers analytic opportunities but also
presents challenges. Since we collected data sepa-
rately, we thought it important to share the raw
data within these categories with one another to
help with the conceptualization process. Then we
questioned one another repeatedly as to the mean-
ing of the raw data, which helped us take advantage
of multiple passes (singly and jointly) through the
pooled data. We paid particular attention to the
similarities and differences in what happened in
each setting and tried to ground our conclusions in
the specifics of each setting to maintain causal
complexity (Ragin, 1989).
As one example, we found evidence in both set-
tings that people seemed to address surprises by
using materials already at hand. For instance, film
crew members often talked about putting supplies
“on hold,” and SWAT officers discussed having a
“box of toys” available for responding to unex-
pected situations. As we progressed in our analysis,
we combined these examples and categorized them
under a heading of “accumulating resources.”
Turning to the innovation and entrepreneurship
literatures, we discovered similarities between this
category and explanations involving improvisation
and bricolage. We analyzed our categories more
deeply in light of these literatures. Because making
do with the materials at hand and returning to the
task quickly were the central characteristics of
these responses, rather than novelty, we chose to
label this action “organizational bricolage” (Baker
& Nelson, 2005; Garud & Karnoe, 2003) instead of
“improvisation” (Miner et al., 2001; Moorman &
Miner, 2001).
Revising our categories with respect to the brico-
lage literature led us to uncover how organizational
bricolage in response to surprises in our settings
was rooted in social interaction focused on devel-
oping shared knowledge. This, in turn, led us to
greater scrutiny of the processes underlying organ-
izational bricolage. Using the constant comparative
method (Glaser & Strauss, 1967), we identified how
members engaging in organizational bricolage drew
244 AprilAcademy of Management Journal
on sociocognitive resources—shared task knowl-
edge and common work flow expectations—and
subsequently explored how these were developed.
By pursuing the commonalities and differences in
the two settings, we developed the emic categories
from each setting into an etic, more generalizable
model of these processes.
Both the SWAT team and film production crews
were settings in which surprises were pervasive.
Surprises appeared daily in observational field
notes and were described in almost every inter-
view. In each case, a surprise was marked by a
break in participants’ expectations, which often re-
lated to how tasks unfolded in the work of the
group. For example, during a SWAT entry into a
location, the first officer in the “stack” (the forma-
tion from which team members initially move)
found his way blocked by a couch. This surprise
required a rapid adjustment. On one film set, a
break in expectations occurred when a specialized
camera operator did not show up to film a scene,
and crew members were reassigned to complete the
shots for the scene. Other surprises caused more
dramatic reactions. After working for several hours
to prepare a car to be towed through a location for
filming, the grips (who set up the production
equipment) were dismayed when the tow mecha-
nism broke, and the crew had to scramble to reor-
ganize and shoot other scenes. A SWAT officer
described how during a mission a marksman shot
at a suspect and missed, alerting him and raising
the danger for everyone, forcing officers to quickly
break into the house to arrest him. Table 2 presents
additional examples of surprises from our data.
The Emergence of Organizational Bricolage in
Response to Surprises
The responses of the team and crews to surprises
showed several characteristics of bricolage. One
characteristic was emergent action combining re-
sources already gathered in the course of regular
activity (Baker & Nelson, 2005; Levi-Strauss, 1966).
Brief Examples of Surprises in the Two Settings
Film Productions SWAT Team
a. Multiple crew members could not locate the bathroom
after arriving in a new filming location.
b. A specialized aerial camera operator did not show up for
work on the day his aerial shots were scheduled to occur.
c. After they arrived at an isolated location, the crew was
missing several members needed to make scenic and
property changes the director wanted.
d. After the production started, the office crew learned that
the second assistant director, responsible for creating the
daily schedules including the scene schedule, did not
know how to do scene scheduling.
e. A fire broke out in a trash can at the edge of the set.
f. The grips spent half the day setting up a tow rig for a
picture car. But as they were pulling it up to the set, the
tow mechanism broke.
g. At midday, a principal actor came down with the flu and
had to leave the set to go to the doctor.
h. A high wind developed after the crew had spent several
days setting up an elaborate aerial camera rig at the top of
a skyscraper.
i. During a slaughter scene on one set, a hot tub overflowed
when the actor fell into it during shooting, and the water
shorted out the lights in the entire building.
j. While executing a “dynamic entry,” they found the path for
the first officer in the “stack” was obstructed by an
unexpected couch.
k. Officers found more suspects at a location than had been
originally anticipated.
l. After arriving at the location of a hostage situation, the
sharpshooters could not cover all observation angles.
m. On arriving at a location, the team needed a large number of
officers on perimeter, which meant that the break-in team was
short of officers.
n. A SWAT marksman shot at a suspect but hit the frame of the
screen door as it was closing and missed the suspect.
o. After setting up explosives to blow up a door, the lead officer
checked the doorknob and found it unlocked.
p. A TV station broadcasting a standoff gave away the placement
of officers to the suspects, who were watching TV inside the
q. As the officers were approaching an apartment, loose
floorboards made a lot of noise, alerting suspects to the
officers’ approach.
The letters labeling the surprises correspond to the response examples in Table 3.
2011 245Bechky and Okhuysen
Another important aspect of responding was the
need to “make do” (Baker & Nelson, 2005; Levi-
Strauss, 1966) to allow for continued action on the
task at hand, since neither group could reasonably
abandon its work because of a surprise. In other
words, the task demands did not relent as a sur-
prise unfolded. In addition, the time pressure of
cost burdens and danger from suspects meant that
individuals had to respond in the moment, and this
demand limited the actions they could take in re-
sponse to surprises. By responding to surprises
through the use of resources that were already
available, these groups could act quickly. Next, we
describe the specific practices of organizational bri-
colage that SWAT teams and film crews used to
respond to surprise.
Practices of Organizational Bricolage
Organizational bricolage in response to surprises
took three main forms in our data. In some cases,
both film crew and SWAT team members used
their shared task knowledge and common work
flow expectations to shift roles in response to sur-
prises. At other times, group members reorganized
by drawing on already learned group routines, par-
ticularly in the SWAT team. On film sets, in con-
trast, some surprises caused a reordering of the
work, in which the crew reoriented its efforts
around new specific tasks. In Table 3, we provide
examples of these activities, each linked to the
surprises summarized in Table 2.
Role shifting. Some surprises left critical roles
temporarily empty and the tasks within them un-
done. When such surprises occurred, our infor-
mants drew on their task knowledge to engage in
role shifting—that is, adjusting their own activities
by substituting for someone else or performing
some of the tasks in someone else’s role. For in-
stance, Glenn
described how finding a couch in
the team’s path during an entry surprised the
SWAT team. Ordinarily, the lead officer in an entry
team rushed ahead to achieve maximum coverage.
In this case, though, the couch was a dangerous
obstacle because, as Glenn put it, “Someone could
be on the other side, just waiting for us.” He then
described how the team responded to the surprise
by using role shifting. Instead of running to the
right as originally planned, Glenn ran left and
stopped at a vantage point where he could “cover”
the couch. Peter, who was second in the stack and
whose role was to run left, immediately ran to the
right around the couch while being covered by
Glenn, executing the task originally assigned to
Glenn. The ability to adjust to each others’ actions
without explicit communication was made possi-
ble by redundancy in task knowledge; as Glenn
said, “We know what everyone is supposed to do.”
Role shifting also occurred in response to signif-
icant surprises on film production sets, such as
absences of essential crew members. Here, the role
shifts were more formal. On one production, a cam-
era operator for the second unit was called in to
operate an aerial camera requiring specialized
skills. Surprised when the camera operator did not
arrive for work, the executive producer and camera
crew got together to discuss their options. The cin-
ematographer asked four or five members of the
crew, “Are you capable of operating this camera?
How about moving up to [a different position], can
you do that?” After determining everyone’s quali-
fications, the first camera operator of the B camera
for the first unit moved to the second unit, as he
knew how to operate the aerial camera, and the
second operator of the B camera moved up to the
first position. The camera crew’s overlapping task
knowledge enabled members to shift roles and con-
tinue shooting on the same schedule that day.
Reorganizing routines. In other instances, sur-
prises disrupted the expected flow of the work for
members. In these cases, responses to surprises en-
tailed changing members’ approach to work. On the
SWAT team, officers responded by reorganizing
routines—that is, by reorienting themselves to a
new set of goals and restructuring their activity by
switching the routines they were using.
Michael, a paramedic, relayed a story of one mis-
sion when a SWAT marksman took a shot at a
dangerous suspect and, unexpectedly, the bullet hit
the doorframe as the door swung shut. Instantly the
situation became much more threatening, because
the suspect was alerted that the team was trying to
kill him, putting his hostages in immediate danger.
The break-in team, which had been waiting outside
the house for an opportunity to arrest the suspect,
had to quickly reorganize, and officers executed a
“dynamic entry” without taking time for a conver-
sation. Here, the SWAT team updated their under-
standing of the situation in the moment and chose
a well-rehearsed routine for entry from their reper-
toire, changing their goal and their actions in re-
sponse to this surprise. As Dave, another SWAT
officer, explained, “If shots get fired or if you start
hearing negotiations going bad, it’s time to enter.
You’re going. Time can be on your side, but when
the split second is up, you’ve got to be moving.”
Similarly, on another mission Dave described,
the team was planning to use explosives to blast
open a fortified door at a drug house. As Pat, the
All informant names are pseudonyms.
246 AprilAcademy of Management Journal
Examples of Organizational Bricolage Responses to Surprises
Response Film Productions SWAT Team
Role shifting a. When one production moved to a new location, many of the crew
could not find the bathrooms, because the location manager did
not put the proper signs up. After several crew members asked
about the bathrooms, the production office coordinator used her
knowledge of the location manager’s tasks to create and post the
bathroom signs herself.
b. On one production, a camera operator for the second unit was on
call to operate an aerial camera requiring specialized skills.
Surprised when he did not arrive for work after he was called in,
the executive producer and camera crew got together to discuss
their options. After determining everyone’s qualifications, the
first camera operator of the B camera for the first unit moved
over to the second unit, as he knew how to operate the aerial
camera, and the second operator of the B camera moved up to
the first position.
c. A couple of crew members complained to Beth about a
commercial production at a reservoir the prior weekend, where
one of them was hired as a set production assistant but ended up
also performing the craft service job, and the other was hired as
the assistant production office coordinator but also worked as the
chauffeur (a task normally assigned to a teamster). A third crew
member performed the tasks of the entire art department, as well
as filling in for the scenic department. As one of them described,
“They just looked at him one afternoon and said, ‘We need you
to manufacture pond scum right now.’” Another crew member,
hired as the boom operator, also performed the property
assistant’s role.
d. On one set, the second assistant director was new to her role and
did not have experience scheduling scenes, which was one of her
tasks. The location manager took over the task for the first part of
the production.
e. On one location, an extra ran down the hill in the park toward
the set, yelling, “We need water, someone lit a trash can on fire!”
Rather than wait for members of the safety crew to respond, one
of the assistants in the locations department ran over with a
cooler, which earlier had been icing down cold beverages on the
set, and used the water to douse the fire.
j. During an entry into a drug house, the lead officer found a
couch in his path. This raised some danger because “someone
could be on the other side, just waiting for us.” The officers
instantly changed their approach and, instead of running to the
right as planned, the lead officer ran left to “cover” the couch.
The second officer, whose role was to run left, immediately ran
to the right to cover the room.
k. Breaking into a location, the team found more suspects than
expected. In response, the lead officers changed their primary
role from trying to reach the furthest corner of the location to
covering areas and suspects as they advanced. This allowed
officers further back in the “stack” to change their mission as
well, and they took the lead in covering every part of the
l. In establishing a perimeter during a mission, the team
discovered that the layout of the buildings unexpectedly
blocked some views so that the sharpshooters could not cover
all angles. The team decided to use members of the “alley
team,” who are usually in charge of controlling a perimeter and
arresting “runners,” to help gather intelligence. Two members of
the alley team were assigned to this task, and in their new role
climbed onto roofs and complemented the observations and
intelligence gathered by the sharpshooters.
m. The team found itself short officers on the break-in team,
because the location required guarding and maintaining “a very
large and very flat outer perimeter,” drawing officers away from
the break-in team. As a consequence, two of the marksmen
filled in to complement the break-in team.
n. A marksman’s bullet, intended to kill a suspect, hit the
doorframe where he was standing. The suspect was instantly
alerted that the team was trying to kill him. Recognizing the
changed situation, the waiting break-in team executed a
“dynamic entry,” a well-rehearsed routine, without taking time
for a conversation.
o. The team was about to use explosives to blow out a door. The
lead officer checked the door handle, found it open, and the
team switched to a “stealth entry” right away.
p. During a hostage mission, a local TV station broadcasted live
from a helicopter and the suspects, watching TV, could see
exactly where the SWAT team was positioned. In response, the
officers abandoned a rear entry strategy in favor of a frontal
approach, to regain the initiative.
q. The plan called for a stealth entry in “one of these smaller,
older apartment complexes that have wooden floors [with]
wooden decking. As you walk in down there, “‘Trump, trump,’
[you] start making noise . . . and you are going to wake people
up.” The loud approach could alert suspects to the presence of
police, and it would be difficult to recover the advantage. “So as
soon as you hear that, you know, you probably need to speed
up a little bit. Go ahead and hit it.”
2011 247Bechky and Okhuysen
expert in charge, was finishing rigging the explo-
sives, he checked the door handle and found it
unlocked. He quickly motioned to the rest of the
team and, instead of storming in on the heels of an
explosion, the officers switched to a “stealth en-
try,” changing the nature of their work. In recalling
the mission, Dave said “It’s always safer to go in
quietly, because the noise can add to the confusion
and make [the suspects] act out....This way, they
don’t even hear us coming in.” This switch in tac-
tics allowed the officers to increase their margin of
safety by avoiding the use of explosives and by
catching the suspects unaware. The change in rou-
tines occasioned by the surprisingly unlocked door
was enabled by the common understandings that
the team shared about when to use a stealth entry
and how to execute it.
Reordering the work. Film production crews did
not reorganize by relying on learned routines.
Rather, when surprised they sometimes responded
by reordering the work of shooting the film, taking
advantage of their knowledge of the work progres-
sion and how tasks fit together. Reordering the
work involved changing the sequence in which
pieces of the overall project were completed. In
other words, when an unexpected event made it
Response Film Productions SWAT Team
the work
f. The grips spent half the day setting up a tow rig to pull a picture
car to simulate a drive through the location. But as they were
pulling it up to the set, the tow rig unexpectedly broke. After a
flurry of activity, the heads of the departments discussed the
situation and decided they could not shoot the planned scenes
involving the picture car and would need to change shots. Informing
the grip crew of the change, the key grip said into his walkie-talkie,
“Okay, new deal, now the Technocrane is coming to me, and we
are shooting scene 17” (a different scene than planned).
g. One morning, a lead actor with scheduled scenes for the
afternoon came down with the flu and needed to be taken to the
doctor. The producer then suggested picking up the big
Steadicam shot of the area, which did not require the principal
actors, so they would not have to go back to that location with
the Steadicam later in the shooting schedule.
h. When a high wind developed, the aerial effects crew could not
do their planned shots requiring the camera to ascend and
descend on the side of a skyscraper. The unit production
manager (UPM) and the aerial effects coordinator talked about
how to respond to this surprise. The UPM asked, “Are you
concerned about the building?” “No,” responded the aerial effects
coordinator, “I’m worried about sideloading my truss.” The UPM
suggested, “I just got another weather forecast from the associate
producer, his forecast says less wind tomorrow. But the problem
is today.” The aerial effects coordinator pointed out, “I think that
we have to think about alternatives, and the last scenario is that
we could put it off....Imnotgoing to do something unsafe. If it
is howling tomorrow and we can’t work, we’ll go help the grips
at the other location, and keep hoping we can come back.” The
UPM reminded him, “What’s sad is that we don’t know what the
weather’ll be like then either....These are all money shots. I
think we will make the decision in the morning tomorrow.” After
talking with the cinematographer, the crew took several shots and
rescheduled the rest for later that week.
i. During a scene in which an actor was “slaughtered” and fell into
a hot tub on the top floor of a mansion, the crew forgot to account
for displacement and the tub overflowed. As a production assistant
announced over the walkie-talkie, “I’m on the first floor and there is
water dripping on my head,” the power distributor box, also on the
first floor, shorted out from the water. All the scenes set to be filmed
that evening with the hot tub were rescheduled for the following
day. The electricians shifted the power to the generators and they
shot a different scene in the dry living room.
The letters labeling the examples of bricolage correspond to those labeling surprises in Table 2.
248 AprilAcademy of Management Journal
impossible to continue with the current trajectory
of the work, film crews responded by reorienting
the path of the work to shoot different scenes.
On one film production, for instance, the grips
spent half the day setting up a tow rig to pull a
“picture car” to simulate a drive through the loca-
tion. But as they were towing the car up to the set,
the rig unexpectedly broke. After a flurry of activ-
ity, the heads of the departments discussed the
situation and decided they could not shoot the
planned scenes involving the picture car and
would need to change scenes. Informing the grip
crew of the change, the key grip said into his walkie-
talkie, “Okay, new deal, now the Technocrane is
coming to me, and we are shooting scene 17” (a
different scene than planned). The Technocrane, a
specialized piece of camera equipment, was already
set up for several shots planned for later in the week
and could be repurposed to continue production. The
discussion between the key crew members enabled
them to update their understanding of what to do
next, and they communicated this to the crew, who
moved quickly to change equipment and reorder
their work to respond to the surprise.
Similarly, when a lead actor with scenes scheduled
for one afternoon came down with the flu, the pro-
duction crew reorganized the schedule in response to
this surprise. The key crew members got together, and
the producer suggested, “I think we should pick up
the big Steadicam shot of the area.” The cinematog-
rapher agreed: “For that one we don’t need the ac-
tors.” Also, this meant that they would not need to
return to the location with the Steadicam (an expen-
sive piece of equipment with a highly paid operator)
later in the shooting schedule. This reassembly of
scenes enabled the production to carry on shooting
that day without the sick actor’s presence.
Role shifting, reorganizing routines, and reorder-
ing the work were forms of bricolage that we doc-
umented in many of the responses to surprises we
saw among the film crews and the SWAT team.
Organizational bricolage allowed team members to
continue their work without interruption. They
were able to engage in bricolage by using the re-
sources immediately available to construct re-
sponses to the unexpected situations they
Resources for Organizational Bricolage
The process of responding to surprises in these
settings suggests a complex conception of bricolage
in which the resources needed are not just material,
but also social and cognitive. In both the film crews
and the police team, responding to surprise relied
heavily on interpersonal collaboration to adjust the
work, and a group’s shared understanding of that
work was critical. The physical resources that the
groups accumulated (materials and people) could
only be used when the individuals in each group
had shared understandings of the situation.
Our analysis of the data uncovered two sociocog-
nitive resources that these groups relied on in their
responses to surprises: shared task knowledge and
common work flow expectations. Shared task
knowledge is process knowledge, held by multiple
group members, about how to complete activities
or accomplish particular aspects of tasks. This
knowledge was indispensable if people were to
substitute for one another or otherwise complete
one another’s activities. For instance, the camera
operators in the earlier example could shift roles to
respond to the surprise of the missing operator
because another member of the crew had the same
task knowledge, allowing the crew to reorganize
the work around the skills of the individuals pres-
ent. Without shared task knowledge, responding to
surprises would likely require far more time and
effort to achieve and would be considerably more
By common work flow expectations,wemeana
shared understanding of how events in a collective
task follow one another. To successfully respond to
a surprise, members of these organizations relied
on these shared expectations of how the set of
activities would lead to completion of the work.
For example, reducing the danger from suspects
was always an important objective for SWAT offi-
cers. As Paul remarked, “Because [suspects] can be
unpredictable, you always try to be one step ahead
of them, that is a big part of our job.” For instance,
during a stealth approach to an apartment, an un-
expectedly noisy wood plank floor loudly an-
nounced the officers’ arrival to the suspects. Team
members quickly reacted, speeding up and execut-
ing a dynamic entry instead. Such a change was
possible because officers shared expectations that it
was important to arrest the suspects before they
could react to the officers’ approach.
On a film set, crew members shared the expecta-
tion that they would try to complete as many shots
as possible, given the contingencies faced on a
given day. As the day drew to a close, crew mem-
bers would check their daily schedules to see how
many scenes remained unfinished, and cinematog-
raphers would start complaining “Let’s pick up the
pace, we’re losing the light!” Therefore, when the
tow rig broke, crew members were prepared to
modify the sequence of shots to be completed that
day, using their shared understanding of what
scenes and equipment were immediately available
to substitute. In both settings, responses to sur-
2011 249Bechky and Okhuysen
prises relied on members’ common expectations of
the direction that the task needed to take for prog-
ress to be made, whether it meant rushing a suspect
or switching the next scene to be filmed.
Both shared task knowledge and common work
flow expectations are forms of common under-
standing (Okhuysen & Bechky, 2009) or shared cog-
nition (Cannon-Bowers & Salas, 2001; Klimoski &
Mohammed, 1994), and both reflect task-specific
knowledge. As Cannon-Bowers and Salas (2001:
23) noted, “This type of shared knowledge allows
team members to take action in a coordinated man-
ner” (2001: 23). However, in our conception task
knowledge and work flow expectations represent
two different shared understandings of a task. Task
knowledge is the very detailed and specific infor-
mation required to effectively perform the work of
a single individual. To the extent that more than
one person holds this type of technical knowledge,
it becomes easier for individuals in a group to sub-
stitute for one another and shift roles. Importantly,
shared task knowledge also allows them to under-
stand how the work of another is executed, and
knowing how the work of others advances also
helps when reorganizing routines and reordering
the work. In contrast, common work flow expecta-
tions are members’ knowledge of the course of sub-
sequent action in their group. This knowledge is
also detailed and specific, involving the particulars
of the task that the group is currently engaged in,
but is related to how that task advances, and thus is
event-based and prospective in nature. Common
work flow expectations are not as reliant on over-
lapping technical knowledge as task knowledge is.
To the degree that members understand the in-
tended trajectory of the task similarly, common
work flow expectations enable a group to shift
roles, reorganize routines, and reorder the work;
they can arrange, eliminate, or incorporate activi-
ties into the work as needed.
Processes Enabling Organizational Bricolage
These two sociocognitive resources, shared task
knowledge and common work flow expectations,
enabled members to engage in organizational bri-
colage when surprises happened. Understanding
how organizations develop these resources sheds
light on the activities that directly and indirectly
helped group members be prepared in the event of
a surprise. We therefore move next to an examina-
tion of how shared task knowledge and common
work flow expectations were formed and sustained
by patterns of interaction on the film sets and in the
SWAT team. In both settings, we discovered simi-
lar processes: these organizations drafted agree-
ment on the work, reinforced and elaborated task
activities, and built cross-member expertise. Al-
though we have conceptually separated shared task
knowledge and common work flow expectations to
describe how they enable bricolage, in both the
SWAT team and film crews these sociocognitive
resources were developed simultaneously through
these three processes. Table 4 presents additional
examples of the development of sociocognitive
Drafting Agreement on the Work
Film crews and the SWAT team developed
shared task knowledge and common work flow ex-
pectations by drafting agreement on the work be-
forehand. Drafting agreement refers to collectively
preparing a tentative or provisional approach to
execution, through interaction among organization
members. By provisionally agreeing to an ap-
proach, organization members created shared
knowledge as they discussed the unfolding of tasks.
In the SWAT team, this regularly took place during
premission briefing meetings. At one meeting, Ted,
the officer in charge, held up two fingers and indi-
cated the goals for the mission on a suspected drug
laboratory: secure the location by neutralizing the
suspects and secure the evidence. As officers asked
questions and made suggestions for an approach to
the location, Ted led the conversation that also
clarified that once the location was secured, the
SWAT team would exit, leaving the investigation to
the Vice Squad.
For the SWAT team, a primary organizing focus
when drafting agreement was the physical location
of the mission they were to undertake. Typical
briefing meetings included sketches of homes or
apartments on whiteboards, photographs and, in
some cases, video from drive-by surveillance or a
helicopter fly-over. The information on the location
was used to establish goals for the team and to
develop a rough outline of how execution was ex-
pected to proceed during the mission. In another
meeting, Andrew stood by a crude location map
and, as the “alley boss,” assigned pairs of officers to
cover particular exits, including a back door to the
apartment and the front and back exits to the com-
plex. His group was in charge of preventing the
escape of suspects and establishing a tight inner
perimeter, but officers from the entire team engaged
in conversation on the best way to secure the loca-
tion. The second team leader, Tim, then stood up
and assigned individual officers on the break-in
team of six officers to their position in the stack (the
formation they would use to approach the door of
the apartment). Once again, the team evaluated the
250 AprilAcademy of Management Journal
Examples of Processes That Developed Shared Task Knowledge and Common Work Flow Expectations
Film Productions SWAT Team
Drafting agreement
on the work
At a meeting on the first day of shooting on one production, many
questions and comments were raised by the production
designer, the art director, and the location manager, who had
already scouted many of the locations and knew what they
would need to prepare and dress the set at each place.
As one production moved into its second week, the unit
production manager (UPM) reported to the vice president of
production at the studio, “We had a better day yesterday,
they’re having nightly meetings, little skull sessions to decide
what the first shot will be. So that way when we come in the
morning, we don’t have the disaster like Monday with the
director coming in and looking around for one and a half hours
thinking about where to put the camera.”
The heads of different departments met on a soccer field to block
out the action for a soccer game scene in one film. The first
assistant director jogged across the field showing how the action
would progress, and the cinematographer, producer and camera
operator pitched in ideas on the locations for cameras and other
A complicated scene in Central Park was the subject of many
impromptu discussions on one set. One discussion was about
whether to use 120- or 80-foot “condors.” The UPM told the
aerial effects coordinator “We went through it with the
[supplier] last week and the 120s have too heavy a load and are
too big,” indicating some concern that the weight of the
equipment would break the asphalt walkways in the park. “We
can spread the load,” replied the aerial effects coordinator, “and
I’m sure we have clearance on the pathway. I went over it
already with [the park representative], who says he’s okay with
it, as long as I’m sure.” The location manager came by and
agreed with the aerial effects coordinator that the park
representative was okay with the plan. The UPM said, “Okay,
but I want to be sure it’ll fit on the path.” They got a tape
measure and headed over to the exact location, where they
measured the clearance on the path. This was followed by a
long technical discussion about measuring, spreading the load,
and how the equipment was going to be set up.
On one set, the crew rehearsed a scene where a severed head fell
to the ground out of a duct in a wall. “Rehearsal,” the first
assistant director called, and the crew members moved into the
living room. The production designer went behind the wall, and
they demonstrated using a flashlight how the head would fall
out of the duct, followed by the actors running from the room.
In a meeting to prepare to serve a search warrant in a suspected
drug laboratory, the briefing officer explicitly noted that the
SWAT team had two goals, to secure the location by
neutralizing the suspects and to secure the evidence. As
questions and concerns were raised and suggestions were
made, the plan for the approach was developed, and he
clarified that once the location was secured, the SWAT team
would exit, leaving the investigation to officers in the Vice
One meeting began with two senior officers briefing the team
on the details of the plan. One of the team leaders, the “alley
boss,” was in charge of eight officers who would secure the
inner perimeter for the mission, preventing suspects from
escaping. He assigned pairs of officers to cover particular
exits on a diagram of the location, and all officers then
participated in a conversation about the best way to secure
the complex. The second team leader was in charge of the
break-in team. He briefed all the officers on the entry
activities, including coverage inside the location (using the
diagram on the board) and expected opposition by suspects.
He also assigned positions in the “stack” (the order in which
they would be entering the apartment). The officers discussed
the proposal from the team leader and recommended
different changes until all concerns were satisfied.
A SWAT team in a documentary (A&E Home Video, 2006)
prepared for an undercover drug buy from a dangerous
suspect by going out to their precinct’s parking lot and, using
a similar car to the suspect’s, sketching out a variety of
tactics. After trying several approaches, they selected one in
which the team blocked in the suspect’s car with a blacked-
out van and another vehicle, and simultaneously
immobilized the suspect in his seat to prevent him from
using a firearm. All of this was to take place quickly, as soon
as the drugs changed hands.
During an interview, an officer described planning a drug raid,
saying “We have a raid and everybody is sitting in here and
we draw it up on the board, and we pick line-ups as to who
is going where.”
During a training day at the fire department, the team rehearsed
rappelling down the outside wall of a four-story building. As
the trainer in charge explained, “You want to make sure the
ropes don’t cross over each other, and that everyone ends up
in the right place before you start going in the window. You
don’t want to end up with a bunch of guys on top of each
other, tangled in the ropes.”
Reinforcing and
elaborating task
While Beth was working as a production assistant in the electric
department of one set, the gaffer instructed her on how to create
flickering firelight for one scene by rapidly adjusting the
controls of several lights on the set. He stood behind her off
screen, and in between takes, he provided directions such as
“make sure you use the full range [of the control]” and “try to
vary the speed you’re moving it more.”
Rehearsal for dynamic entries took place in a warehouse, where
a simulated house was built by officers. This house had
movable walls on hinges and different types of furniture
inside. During training some officers acted as suspects and
“threw in a twist” by changing the arrangements of the
house, the number of suspects, or the amount of resistance
they put up, with each modification presenting a new
challenge to the team. As an officer noted, “[they] make small
changes, to see the team adjust.”
A junior officer described a particular mission during which,
“in the heat of the moment I was supposed to go left but
started heading right, following the guy right in front of me.”
As he began to move in the wrong direction, a more senior
officer immediately behind him in the entry stack grabbed
him “by the collar” and “shoved” him in the correct
2011 251Bechky and Okhuysen
Film Productions SWAT Team
Reinforcing and
elaborating task
The key grip on one set wanted a muslin set up near the camera.
Two grips asked, “Where’s it going to go? We’ll bring the stands
over there.” When the key grip said to put it to the left of the
camera, the grips set up two big stands on the left side of the
crane, and two other grips brought the frame over. The four
grips tied the muslin to one side of the frame, after they put it
on the stands. Watching them, the key grip suggested, “It is a
two-man job now, the other two guys should be getting
sandbags.” Two grips ran off to get the sandbags, while the
other two wrapped the muslin over the other side of the frame,
bringing it back around. The key grip, pointing to the original
edge, said, “You’ve gotta tie this edge first, otherwise it can get
dicey.” The two grips brought the sandbags in a rolling basket,
and used them to weigh down the frame. When they were
finished, the key grip looked at the frame, which was kind of
lopsided, and asked, “Who made a mess of this frame? You pull
down on that end, let’s even it out. Now, tighten the knuckles
[knobs at corners of frame].”
One sunny morning on the set, the craft services [food and
beverages] person was asked to go buy sunscreen, and she left
the set and went to a store to get it. While she was out, the
weather warmed up, and the cast and crew started drinking all
the water and ran out of cold drinks. The production office
coordinator loaded up a cooler from what they had in the office,
and Beth carried it to the set. When the craft services person
returned to the location, the production office coordinator
explained to her that she wasn’t supposed to leave the set. “You
need to pass it off on someone else to leave, and stay with the
craft services stuff....Itisstandard on all shoots for craft
service to always be available, it is part of the job. Don’t worry
about it, but try to have one of you around. Even if it means just
coming back to check, as long as you do it every five minutes.”
The unit production manager asked over the walkie-talkie:
“Anyone have eyes on the cinematographer?” When no one
responded, she explained to the production assistants,
somewhat annoyed, “The proper response is to say, ‘Looking,’
and actually go look.”
One officer described the team’s postmission meetings: “If it
doesn’t work out, then we sit down and ‘Monday morning
quarterback’ it, and you know ‘you could have done this,
what you did worked out fine,’ or maybe it didn’t....Asa
group [we] come up with something comfortable that we all
kind of agree on and go from there [. . .] we sit down, and we
actually talk about and communicate about it, until we get
comfortable with it if we weren’t comfortable with the way it
went down.”
A senior officer described how during one mission, he checked
a rookie’s bullet-proof vest and made him take it off and put
it on again, explaining that he had it on backwards and
showing him how to identify the front and back by looking at
markings on the inside.
A senior officer described sitting down with a junior officer to
listen to a tape recording of their prior mission (made for
evidentiary and liability reasons). When he played the tape,
the junior officer responded with “Hey, who was that? Who
was that screaming?” After they played it again, the junior
officer said “Well, I guess that’s me.” Reflecting on this with
Gerardo, the senior officer said: “And I can work with [him]
and I can say, ‘You know, you would give better commands
if you would not scream. People could hear what you are
saying better, and your suspects will react to what you are
doing and do what you were saying a lot quicker.’ You know
. . . he didn’t like it. But he realized what he’s doing. So next
time, he is more cognizant of it.”
Officers doing a “Monday morning quarterback” on a mission
during a training session discussed the unexpected presence
of children during the execution of an arrest warrant. In the
course of the mission, the children had become an important
distraction from the need to subdue the suspects and bring
them into custody. As the discussion progressed, SWAT team
members came to a joint agreement on how they should
approach these situations, concluding that they should call in
the paramedics as quickly as possible to take the children
away from the scene.
Building cross-
The sound mixer explained to Beth how he knew one of the grips
on the production. They had worked together on a prior
production, where the director had recommended the grip to
work in the sound department as the boom operator. As they
had traveled together to the set, the sound mixer asked the
boom operator about his experience. The boom operator had
never operated a boom before. His previous job working with
this director was in craft services. Therefore, in a span of about
six months he had worked in the craft service, sound, and grip
departments on different projects.
A production assistant interested in becoming an electrician
talked with Beth about how she gained experience in this area:
“I got hired as a PA [production assistant]. Then, on the third
day, I started bugging the “right people.” I bugged the genny
operator, “Is there anything I can do for you?” And I wrapped a
cable, he thought it would take me 45 minutes but I came right
back. Then he asked if I could gel lights, I said yes, so I did
that. That’s how I got assigned to the electrics this week.”
During a training session, the officer in charge noted that all
officers on the team “are supposed to know everybody else’s
job.” In this session, the officers on the team practiced on the
shooting range. For Brett, a junior officer, it was the first time
using a sharpshooter rifle and scope. As Dan showed him
how to hold the rifle and use the scope, Brett remarked how
clear targets became. In a later interview, Brett described the
importance of training sessions for him. Referencing his
experience with the rifle and scope, he said “I had no idea
that the scope was that good. I guess I sort of knew that it
must be pretty good, but you can see the face on the penny
[on the target].” He then continued, “It totally makes sense
how the snipers are on the roof even when they aren’t going
to shoot. They can see more than we can.”
After officers attended specialized schools, they presented what
they had learned to the other officers during training. An
officer insisted that “we exchange everything we learn” and
“anything that we can go to a school and learn, a better idea
or whatever, we try to bring it back and we kind of adopt the
idea.” After attending a nonlethal tools school, one officer
explained to the group that “you don’t use flash bangs when
children are present, because they are dangerous.” As he
continued his explanation, he also highlighted the difference
between smoke canisters and tear gas canisters, which he
described as “a pretty big way to escalate things.”
252 AprilAcademy of Management Journal
proposed order and recommended changes, re-
drafting the plan until everyone’s concerns were
satisfied, with the understanding that circum-
stances might cause changes in their work during
the mission.
In the case of film crews, drafting agreement on
the work depended on the joint use of schedules,
because they captured the temporal unfolding of
the production process, such as the sequencing and
expected time needed to shoot particular scenes.
Common expectations for how filming would un-
fold began developing through the shooting sched-
ule, created by the production manager from the
script and storyboards, with input from other de-
partment heads. Right before shooting would begin,
the heads of all the production departments met to
go over this schedule. These meetings set out how
filming would progress and provided information
that different departments needed to prepare for
filming. For instance, at a meeting on the first day
of shooting on one production, the production de-
signer, the art director, and the location manager,
who had already scouted many of the locations,
raised some issues. After repeated references arose
to scenes in the park or the Milton Building, the art
director noted the work that would be required for
those scenes: “Basically, every time we shoot in the
park location or the Milton Building, we are going
to have to dress it . . . you can see it in almost every
In both settings, organization members drafted
agreement on the work publicly, with wide partic-
ipation from members and opportunities to ask
questions, propose alternatives, and critique ap-
proaches as they were being outlined. The active
and engaged conversation that took place around
plans and schedules, in view of everyone, estab-
lished common work flow expectations and under-
standings of the task while providing provisional
guidance on what would happen in execution. Al-
though there were similarities in the ways film
crews and the SWAT team drafted agreement, the
work flow created some differences in the process.
For the film crews, the temporal pattern of the
work, characterized by long periods of preparation
interspersed with short bursts of intense activity
while shooting, allowed for drafting agreement to
happen almost continuously. Key members of de-
partments met first thing in the morning and at the
end of each day, and groups of crew members also
got together briefly throughout the shooting day. In
these ad hoc meetings, members worked continu-
ally to improve the execution of the filming by
drafting agreement on the work. For instance, after
a series of delays on one set, several key individu-
als started having “little skull sessions” every night
to troubleshoot potential problem areas for the next
morning. Ad hoc meetings could also involve run-
ning through scenes, as when the heads of different
departments blocked out the action for a soccer
game scene. In this meeting, an assistant director
jogged across the field showing how the action
would progress, and the cinematographer, pro-
ducer, director, and camera operator offered ideas
such as locations for cameras and the need for
additional actors. “Do we need fans?” asked the
assistant director, and the director replied, “Maybe
just the coach.”
Through ad hoc meetings, crew members devel-
oped an immediate, fine-grained, and emergent un-
derstanding of the task’s demands. These forms of
drafting agreement thus not only helped set com-
mon work flow expectations for the participants,
but also contributed to shared task knowledge. In
Film Productions SWAT Team
Building cross-
An office production coordinator, discussing her career choices,
noted that in her current position, “If I want to produce, I am
on that track. If instead, I want to be an AD [assistant director], I
am also on that track. You get a lot of exposure as a production
coordinator, so you can do a bunch of things. Look at the head
of the wardrobe department, she used to do it, for example.”
One officer in an interview noted that it was important to
become familiar with all the jobs that were done on the
SWAT team. “[Officers] are supposed to know everybody
else’s job.” A paramedic mentioned that even though he does
not carry a gun and would probably never shoot anyone, it’s
good to know “how to put the safety on a gun, at least.”
A new office production assistant, describing how she got her
position, said, “I started at a commercial production house.
Then I went to this party and met the UPM of this set, she
interviewed me and hired me for the office. I’m not sure I like
the office stuff, this is my first time doing it, I prefer to be on
the set.”
During an interview, a rookie officer preparing to go to basic
SWAT school described what he expected to learn: “How to
do a dynamic entry, which I’ve already done here with the
guys....Butyoudoa hundred of them....Andweapons,
some of the weapons that I can’t use yet, and how to work
with specialists, like hostage negotiators.” He also
commented that “going to the same school and learning
things the same way they did is what it’s about. We’re all
supposed to learn the same.”
2011 253Bechky and Okhuysen
contrast, officers on the SWAT team did not have
such a continuous flow in drafting agreement about
the work. Because of time pressure and potential
danger, the team was often unable to interrupt their
work while they were in the midst of executing a
mission. Instead, the vast majority of these prac-
tices occurred during briefing meetings for planned
activities such as carrying out arrest warrants, or in
the first few moments of an emergent situation such
as a hostage mission.
Reinforcing and Elaborating Task Activities
By reinforcing and elaborating task activities,
members of the SWAT team and the film crews also
created common work flow expectations and
shared task knowledge. Reinforcing and elaborat-
ing task activities means strengthening task knowl-
edge and giving individuals additional detail about
the work. In these settings, people provided guid-
ance to each other on how to best perform tasks,
pointing out how performance of a particular task
could be improved or how it might relate to their
own tasks. Reinforcing and elaborating task activi-
ties happened in both settings, but there were im-
portant differences in how they happened that
were based on the different temporal patterns of the
work and on the varying degrees of continuity of
membership. Because of the pattern of the work,
film crews had more time to elaborate while exe-
cuting their task, but SWAT team members were
more likely to elaborate before and after the mis-
sions, during training and in debriefing meetings.
Also, reinforcing and elaborating task activities was
mostly an individual learning mechanism for film
crews, whereas for the SWAT team, reflecting on
tasks often resulted in group learning.
Film crew and SWAT team members often pro-
vided guidance to one another, reinforcing and
elaborating task activities during their execution.
On the film sets, crew members could use the time
while they were accomplishing the work to elabo-
rate feedback to one another, as when the key grip
on one set guided his crew through setting up a
muslin near a camera, saying “You’ve gotta tie this
edge first, otherwise it can get dicey.... Now,
tighten the knuckles [knobs at the corners of the
frame].” While Beth was working as a production
assistant in the electric department of one set, the
gaffer, Stan, instructed her on how to create flick-
ering firelight for one scene by rapidly adjusting the
controls of several lights. Stan stood behind her,
and in between takes, he provided directions such
as “Make sure you use the full range [of the con-
trol]” and “Try to vary the speed you’re moving it
more,” to make the flickering appear more random.
Film locations were relatively close quarters in
which much of the crew could see what others
were doing at all times, and as a consequence this
process of instruction and correction was public.
Beth often observed crew members in different de-
partments joking about performing a task properly
or telling others how to perform their roles, as on
one set where the sound mixer told an electrician
“Can you route your cable around the edge of the
room? Otherwise it interferes with my equipment.”
Public reinforcing and elaborating served to broad-
cast task knowledge, helping develop shared
knowledge and expectations among everyone who
was within earshot.
In the case of the SWAT team, quick corrections
and reinforcing of appropriate behavior sometimes
took place during missions. For example, Joe, a
veteran officer, described a moment at the start of a
mission: “I pulled on [a rookie’s] kevlar vest and it
came up around his face. He had to take it off, he
had it on backwards. . . . I showed him the mark-
ings inside, it’s the only way to tell front from
back.” However, SWAT teams were less likely to
elaborate while on a mission, owing to the time
pressure and danger. Instead, after a mission,
SWAT members gave each other feedback on ap-
propriate task performance. For instance, a senior
officer described how, during debriefing, he played
a sound recording of the mission for a junior offi-
cer, who could be heard yelling commands. He said
that he explained, “You would give better com-
mands if you would not scream. People could hear
what you are saying better, and your suspects will
react to what you are doing and do what you are
saying a lot quicker.”
Moreover, the SWAT teams’ elaboration and re-
inforcing of task activities had an additional benefit
for developing shared task knowledge and work
flow expectations. Because officers trained as a
group and expected to work together on future mis-
sions, they had the opportunity to build common
work flow expectations for future activities to-
gether. During a training session attended by Ge-
rardo, officers discussed a previous mission, where
the unexpected presence of children had become a
large distraction from the main goal (arresting sus-
pects and bringing them into custody). As the dis-
cussion progressed, SWAT team members agreed
that, in the future, they would call in paramedics as
quickly as possible to remove children from the
scene. Consensus on appropriate task activities in
response to particular features of a situation en-
abled officers to share understandings of their roles
as a group and then bring a group understanding to
subsequent missions. We did not see evidence of
such explicit group learning among film crew
254 AprilAcademy of Management Journal
members, who had much less continuity of mem-
bership across productions and therefore had few
opportunities to either develop or use understand-
ings specific to a particular film production.
Building Cross-Member Expertise
Both the SWAT team and the film crews also had
processes for building cross-member expertise—
that is, for learning the task knowledge others used
in their own work. By building familiarity with
others’ work, individuals could understand how
the broader work process would proceed and how
the group would achieve its objectives. In both
settings, members built cross-member expertise
through the daily work, but differences in the con-
tinuity of membership influenced how this was
achieved. The SWAT team had devoted extensive
time to training as a group; in the film crew, it was
the responsibility of individual crew members to
learn for themselves how to perform the work on
the set.
To create cross-member expertise among officers,
the SWAT team explicitly used cross-training. For
example, during a training session Dan, the officer
in charge, noted that all officers on the team “are
supposed to know everybody else’s job.” In this
session, the officers on the team practiced on the
shooting range. For Brett, a junior officer, it was the
first time using a marksman’s rifle and scope. As
Dan showed him how to hold the rifle and use the
scope, Brett remarked how clear targets became. In
a later interview, Brett described the importance of
training sessions for him. Referencing his experi-
ence with the rifle and scope, he said “I had no clue
that the scope was that good. I guess I sort of knew
that it must be pretty good, but you can see the face
on the penny [on the target].” He continued, “It
totally makes sense how the snipers are on the roof
even when they aren’t going to shoot. They can see
more than we can.” Although Brett was not ex-
pected to become proficient at the marksmen’s du-
ties, the training session gave him a deeper under-
standing of the work of the marksmen and their role
on the team.
In the SWAT team, the development of cross-
member expertise took place in the context of the
group. When individual officers attended special-
ized schools (such as those for less lethal weap-
onry, explosives, or chemicals and gases), the team
took time at the next scheduled training session to
describe what those officers had learned. For exam-
ple, during one training session, an officer who had
just returned from a school on nonlethal weaponry
took over and described the multiple uses of “flash-
bang devices” to the team. Because the training
sessions were the setting for cross-training, the
team placed a high value on having all members
present and occasionally rescheduled to ensure
that every officer would attend. Officers commonly
scheduled their holidays and vacations around the
training schedule, which reflected the emphasis
they placed on developing their expertise in the
context of their ongoing group.
In the case of film crews, cross-member expertise
was built through the career progression process
whereby individuals typically advanced through
working in multiple film projects. Beginners in the
film industry invariably started their careers as pro-
duction assistants who were not confined to a spe-
cialized area such as costumes, lighting, or sound.
Rather, they worked on tasks that gave them access
to different departments, and they became familiar
with the specialized work of each as well as the
interdependencies between departments. It was
also common, especially early in their careers, for
people to change roles and departments to explore
the departments in which they had the most
An example of this individual-based form of de-
veloping cross-functional expertise emerged when
Jeff, the sound mixer on one production, described
his experience with Sam. Jeff had hired Sam for an
earlier project because he had been highly recom-
mended by the director to be the boom (micro-
phone) operator. However, on the drive to that lo-
cation, Jeff found out that Sam had never operated
a boom before. As Jeff exclaimed, “Can you believe
it, his earlier job with this [director] had been in
craft services!” (providing food and beverages). But
the tale did not end there. In the current produc-
tion, Sam was hired on as a grip. This meant that in
a span of about six months Sam had worked in the
craft service, sound, and grip departments on dif-
ferent projects.
Moreover, Sam’s experience was typical of pro-
duction assistants who, by asking to take on new
and more complex tasks, learned about the roles
and responsibilities of other crew members. On
another film set, Debbie, a production assistant in-
terested in becoming an electrician, made herself
useful to the electric crew. In her words, “I bugged
the genny operator: ‘Is there anything I can do for
you?’ And I wrapped a cable, he thought it would
take 45 minutes but I came right back. Then he
asked if I could gel lights, I said yes, so I did that.
That’s how I got assigned to the electrics this
week.” Thus, although some film crew members
had attended training programs such as film
school, they most often acquired cross-member ex-
pertise by finding work on different film sets and
2011 255Bechky and Okhuysen
displaying individual initiative to work in different
Collectively, the exposure of production assis-
tants to the specialized roles of others while work-
ing and fulfilling different roles meant that they
built an understanding of the task knowledge for
those different roles, which they carried with them
as they advanced in their careers. Building cross-
member expertise in the SWAT team and the film
crews was useful because it enhanced the shared
task knowledge of the members. The way in which
cross-member expertise was developed also helped
create common work flow expectations, as SWAT
and film crew members were able to see typical
situations in which tasks and roles interacted.
Processes for drafting agreement on the work,
reinforcing and elaborating task activities, and
building cross-member expertise in both the SWAT
team and the film crews enabled the development
of shared task knowledge and common work flow
expectations. Drafting agreement on the work, in
the form of premission briefings for SWAT teams
and scheduling and ad hoc meetings on film sets,
helped create common work flow expectations
about task progression and exposed members to the
work of others. SWAT team members created
shared task knowledge through rehearsals, correc-
tions, and retrospective analysis, and on film sets
continual correcting was the norm. The SWAT
team’s cross-training and the film crews’ cross-
project career progression facilitated common un-
derstanding of tasks and roles. Together, these
processes created the sociocognitive resources
needed for organizational bricolage as a response
to surprises.
The SWAT team and the film crews faced fre-
quent surprises, and organization members ex-
pected the unexpected. Although they anticipated
challenges in the execution of their work, they
could not know the characteristics of specific sur-
prises ahead of time: the tasks of these groups were
complex and interdependent, and time pressure
constrained action. By showing how these organi-
zations responded to surprises, we highlight prac-
tices of organizational bricolage: role shifting, reor-
ganizing routines, and reordering the work. Daily
activities in which organization members drafted
agreement on their work, reinforced and elaborated
task activities, and built cross-member expertise
enabled bricolage. These processes continually re-
created the sociocognitive resources—shared task
knowledge and common work flow expectations—
that members drew upon when facing unexpected
events. We outline the relationship between these
practices in Figure 1.
Responding to Surprise through
Organizational Bricolage
Our investigation suggests that bricolage is a
powerful response to the demands of unexpected
situations. Although recognizing that the settings
we studied are somewhat unusual, we believe our
findings are generalizable to other organizations.
The regularity of surprises in film crews and the
SWAT team emphasized the constant need to make
do to continue the work. Our suspicion is that
making do in the face of unexpected events is com-
Developing and Using Sociocognitive Resources to Engage in Organizational Bricolage in
Response to Surprises
256 AprilAcademy of Management Journal
mon in many organizations. Given time constraints
and the need to keep working, drawing on shared
sociocognitive resources to reorganize was a re-
sponsive approach for these groups, as it likely
would be in other settings.
Our findings both further knowledge about what
enables organizations to engage in bricolage in re-
sponse to surprises and distinguish it from other
processes. Although research on innovation often
references collective bricolage as an endeavor in
which different people participate, this research
presents multiple definitions and interpretations
(Baker, 2007). For instance, Garud and Karnoe
(2003) described the bricolage of a broad techno-
logical community who together shaped improve-
ments to wind turbines. This community com-
prised “multiple actors with different levels of
involvement” (Garud & Karnoe, 2003: 280) who did
not necessarily work for the same organization, on
the same product, at the same time, or with the
same goals. Similarly, in their examination of en-
trepreneurial activity, Baker and Nelson (2005) em-
phasized the social space in which bricolage takes
place, arguing that a network of individuals and
institutions that identify resources and constrain or
enable particular activities facilitate it. For in-
stance, customers facilitate this process through
their willingness to accept the nonstandard, po-
tentially unappealing products or services that
result from bricolage. In both instances, bricolage
occurred through the participation of many dif-
ferent people who could be working with differ-
ent goals.
Although our examination of bricolage as a re-
sponse to surprise also highlights its collective na-
ture, we are able to pinpoint some processes and
characteristics that are specific to bricolage within
the boundaries of organizations. Organizational bri-
colage is rooted in the tight performance of a shared
task guided by common goals. In the film crews and
the SWAT team, individuals belonged to a group in
which goals and intentions were cooperative, task
interdependence was high, members had a com-
mon perspective on the situation at hand, and joint
response to surprises was simultaneous. In organi-
zations with such characteristics, sociocognitive re-
sources are crucial for engaging in bricolage in re-
sponse to surprise. However, these characteristics
mark important differences from broader collective
arrangements, such as the network forms of brico-
lage described by Garud and Karnoe (2003) and
Baker and Nelson (2005). In an entrepreneurial net-
work, for example, where people may not share
goals, shared knowledge of tasks and common
work flow expectations may be less central in craft-
ing responses to surprise.
Another boundary condition of our findings is
that by studying organizations that expected sur-
prises, we discovered circumstances in which sur-
prises were treated as less surprising. This discov-
ery has implications for scholars’ knowledge of
how alertness to breaks in expectations shapes or-
ganizational action. The literature suggests that no-
ticing breaks from expectations can lead to impro-
visation (Baker & Nelson, 2005; Miner et al., 2001)
and that more severe breaks lead to learning and
change (Tyre & Orlikowski, 1994; Zellmer-Bruhn,
2003). However, although the organizations in our
study were alert to deviations in the sense that their
members expected surprises to happen, we did not
find that differences in the severity of surprises or
in their other characteristics affected the way mem-
bers perceived or responded to them.
In our initial analytic efforts, we assumed we
would find that such features as the novelty, sever-
ity, and source of surprises would provoke differ-
ent responses. However, we found upon pursuing
these differences that we did not gain theoretical
leverage, because distinctive variations in the ways
that our informants responded to surprises were
absent. For instance, the film crew reacted in the
same way when the catered bagels at the craft ser-
vice table were reported to be “crappy” and when a
handgun was found in the “honeywagon” (the
bathroom trailer), although to an outsider these
might seem like surprises with quite different char-
acteristics. In our data, responses to surprises al-
ways exhibited the same pattern of organizational
bricolage, in which our informants made do with
the resources at hand to continue on the task.
The result of expecting and preparing for sur-
prise seemed to be the routinization of responses to
surprises, in which features such as their severity,
importance, and novelty were obscured or made
irrelevant. This regularization has also been ob-
served in newsrooms, where it is difficult to sepa-
rate the ordinary from the exceptional (Tuchman,
1973). In other types of organizations, surprises or
unexpected events may signal opportunities for
broader reorganization and change. This may be
particularly true for entrepreneurial organizations,
which can abandon the original goals of their ven-
tures, unlike SWAT teams and film crews. This
contrast suggests that exploring the concept of sur-
prise itself may require investigating organizations
in which surprises are treated in a nonroutine man-
ner. Such exploration would be appropriate to un-
cover how organization members classify, priori-
tize, and understand unexpected events before
responding to them.
2011 257Bechky and Okhuysen
The Development of Shared Sociocognitive
Resources for Organizational Bricolage
Identifying common work flow expectations and
shared task knowledge as sociocognitive resources
on which organizational bricolage relies is a central
contribution of this work. Previous work on collec-
tive bricolage has focused substantial attention on
resources such as people and materials (Baker &
Nelson, 2005; Garud & Karnoe, 2003) but has not
fully explicated sociocognitive resources. We find
that the development and use of sociocognitive re-
sources explain how bricolage enables responsive-
ness to surprise. Even when a single individual
responds to an unexpected event, as when someone
switches roles in a work situation, the action is
embedded in a larger understanding of the task, one
that incorporates detailed knowledge of the work of
others as well as knowledge of how the collective
task advances. Identifying these shared cognitions
helps explain how organizations set the stage for
organizational bricolage by creating common
knowledge (Cannon-Bowers & Salas, 2001; Kli-
moski & Mohammed, 1994). We thus add to the
expanding set of constructs that identify common
knowledge of a situation as important for coordi-
nating under new circumstances, such as shared
role and cognitive systems (Klein et al., 2006; Ma-
jchrzak et al., 2007), mental models (Marks, Zac-
caro, & Mathieu, 2000), procedural and declarative
memory (Miner et al., 2001), and common under-
standing (Okhuysen & Bechky, 2009).
An important part of our contribution is focusing
on how organizations develop these sociocognitive
resources. By doing so, we address recent calls to
shift attention to how expertise and knowledge
evolve under changing conditions (Majchrzak et
al., 2007) and to elaborate the antecedents to the
development of team mental models (Mohammed,
Ferzandi, & Hamilton, 2010). Drafting agreement on
the work, reinforcing and elaborating task activi-
ties, and building cross-member expertise are all
processes that create and buttress shared task
knowledge and common work flow expectations.
By explicating the processes that underlie shared
forms of knowledge, we fill a need created by prior
research on common knowledge that has identified
what types of knowledge might be useful, but not
how to develop such knowledge.
We find that the development of shared knowl-
edge is rooted in the regular, day-to-day interac-
tions that happen in organizations as members
carry out the work. Specifying the three processes
for developing shared task knowledge and common
work flow expectations enables us to link this daily
work activity with the practices of bricolage used to
respond to surprises. For example, drafting agree-
ment on the work happens publicly and with con-
siderable input, which enables organization mem-
bers to account for unexpected events or
potential contingencies, even when the detailed
characteristics of those unexpected events cannot
be known a priori. All three of the processes we
describe are examples of day-to-day collective
activities within organizations that, in their nor-
mal execution, contribute to the sociocognitive
resources that enable responsiveness to surprise.
Our comparison of two settings in which workers
regularly face surprises also allows us to explore
how the preparation of responses to surprise is
embedded in the structural context of the every-
day work of these organizations.
The Structural Context Shaping Organizational
Bricolage and Sociocognitive Resources
By comparing our settings, we show how the
structural context of the work carried out in them
shapes organizational bricolage and the develop-
ment of sociocognitive resources. As Strauss sug-
gested, a focus on structural context ensures that
one’s understanding of action “will be carefully
located within the larger social structure” (1978:
101). Comparing the structural contexts of our set-
tings helps explain how the interplay of structures
and processes of organizations make them ready for
responding to surprise, albeit in distinct ways.
The differences between the settings in terms of
the temporal flow of the tasks, continuity of mem-
bership, and consequences of events framed the
ways in which organization members took action to
respond to surprise and built the resources neces-
sary to do so. For instance, when faced with sur-
prises in the work, both organizations exhibited
role shifting as a form of bricolage, but the SWAT
team also reorganized their routines, while the film
crews were more likely to reorder the work. Thus,
although members in both settings engaged in or-
ganizational bricolage using sociocognitive re-
sources they developed, their actions were shaped
by the structural context of the work.
Significant time pressure and severe danger
shaped the SWAT team’s work on missions, given
the potential for negative consequences if they did
not act quickly in response to surprise. The tempo-
ral flow of the work and the severe consequences
made it likely that they would choose forms of
bricolage that could be enacted in a moment, with-
out much discussion. They would not have been
prepared to take such action, however, if they had
not had shared group routines to draw on. Thus,
the development of sociocognitive resources in this
258 AprilAcademy of Management Journal
setting was more focused on group learning during
training and retrospective analysis of missions,
which was enabled by the structural context cre-
ated through the continuity of membership on
the team.
In contrast, on film sets the temporal flow of the
work allowed for breaks to reorganize, and the con-
sequences of surprises were less dire, centering
primarily on equipment and personnel costs. This
structural context also shaped organizational brico-
lage in response to surprises: organization members
discussed how to use the people and equipment at
hand, taking time to reorder the work given their
material constraints. The structural context of the
film industry also provided little continuity of
membership across projects. Thus, instead of de-
veloping shared task knowledge and work flow ex-
pectations through specific training sessions, film
crew members learned on the job, constantly rein-
forcing expectations so that they could accomplish
work quickly. This explicit feedback from the con-
stant reinforcement of expectations helped to cre-
ate the sociocognitive resources that enabled quick
discussion, role shifting, and reordering the work
in response to surprise.
What these comparisons demonstrate is that the
structural context of organizations influences both
the forms of organizational bricolage practiced and
the ways sociocognitive resources are developed.
For example, in an organization that has extreme
pressures on execution such as time and danger,
developing and practicing routines is both a good
way to create shared expectations and a quick way
to respond to surprises. By developing a shared
understanding of when and how to enact routines,
a SWAT team prepares for some expected disrup-
tions and is thereby prepared for the unexpected.
Developing routines is but one way to respond to
surprise that worked in this particular structural
context. Other organizations, such as aircraft carri-
ers (Weick & Roberts, 1993), provide contexts that
are similar to SWAT teams, where time pressure is
present and dangers abound. There is considerable
evidence that members of these organizations also
respond to surprises through emergent interaction
that relies on shared cognition (Weick & Roberts,
1993), but we do not know how shared cognitions
develop in these situations. Given the similar struc-
tural context, we would expect to see the develop-
ment of common knowledge aiding the deployment
of routines among these crew members. However,
additional aspects of the structural context might
result in different processes for developing re-
sponses to surprise on aircraft carriers. This sug-
gests a need for future comparative research to de-
termine which differences have the most impact on
responsiveness to surprise.
The SWAT team and the film crews prepared for
the unexpected through the actions and interac-
tions of organization members’ daily work lives.
Because the processes creating sociocognitive re-
sources are rooted in the interplay of organizational
and team structures and ongoing actions, our de-
scription of these processes offers a nuanced pic-
ture of organizations and organizing. Exploring the
relationship between the practices people use to pre-
pare and respond to surprise and the structural con-
text in which they experience them demonstrates the
dynamism of organizing in situations in which plans
meld with responses, expectations encounter reali-
ties, and structures overlap actions. Such dynamism
encourages researchers to move beyond dualism in
our conceptualizations of organizations. Developing
and adopting a conceptual vocabulary that merges
and complicates dichotomies more accurately re-
flects organizational life and can enliven future theo-
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Beth A. Bechky ( is an associate
professor of management at the Graduate School of Man-
agement at the University of California, Davis. She re-
ceived her Ph.D. from Stanford University. Her research
is at the intersection of organization theory and the soci-
ology of work and occupations; she focuses on the inter-
action order of the workplace.
Gerardo A. Okhuysen (gerardo.okhuysen@business. is an associate professor of management at the
David Eccles School of Business at the University of
Utah. He received his Ph.D. from Stanford University.
His research focuses on groups in different decision sit-
uations, focusing on the management of task and envi-
ronmental uncertainty.
2011 261Bechky and Okhuysen
... Improvisation in organizations, known as organizational improvisation, corresponds to an individual improvising on behalf of a group of any sort, or a whole organization improvising (Abrantes et al., 2022;Cunha et al., 2017). Organizations that employ processes rooted in improvisation do so without a prior plan to deal with an ongoing situation (Bechky & Okhuysen, 2011;Kamoche & Cunha, 2001). While authors converge in describing improvisation as relying on time limits to enact some action, multiple definitions have arisen with di erent interpretations of that reliance. ...
... 135) Weick, 1993 "When situations unravel, [someone] able to create order from whatever materials were at hand (…) being able to, usually in the company of similarly skilled people, to form the materials or insights into novel combinations". multi-country corporations (Halme et al., 2012) and settings as diverse as the modus operandi that film crews and SWAT (Special weapons and tactics) teams use to deal with unforeseen situations in their day-to-day activities (Bechky & Okhuysen, 2011). A particularly common context where bricolage has been studied is in entrepreneurship, including that with a social aspect. ...
... The relationship between improvisation and bricolage has remained somewhat ambiguous, with some scholars treating the two concepts equivalently (Bechky & Okhuysen, 2011). Cunha et al. (2014) ...
... The literature on organizational surprise conceives surprise either as an exogenously generated threat to be neutralized or minimized (Cunha et al., 2006;McDaniel, Jordan, & Fleeman, 2003) or as an inherent feature of complex systems (Bechky & Okhuysen, 2011;Cunha et al., 2006;Reis Louis, 1980) that "cannot be avoided, eliminated, or controlled" (McDaniel et al., 2003: 266) and thus requires adaptation. Both responses discourage discovery; neither halts ongoing activity to explore what is unknown about the unexpected experience. ...
Full-text available
Process studies of organizational and strategic change have drawn attention to the dynamics that generate such change, but we still know little about how discovery unfolds within change. A field study of efforts to create a new system for delivering inpatient medical care revealed that surprises and discoveries, and constructively oriented responses to them, occurred continuously throughout organizational change, not merely at the outset. Seeking to understand this empirical puzzle, I drew on the concept of abduction from pragmatism and organizational studies. This study makes two contributions to theory about the relation between discovery and change. First, I develop a framework that explicates the central role of discovery as an abductive mechanism that enables participants to reorient prevailing habits. Analyses reveal discovery to operate through what I call “abduction sequences,” or loosely connected and overlapping episodes of creative social activity. Three key motors and their attendant feelings drive discovery via abduction sequences: surprise, doubt, and inquiry. Second, I provide a methodology for use in future research on discovery. Specifically, I propose abduction sequences as a useful analytic means for examining discovery within change and other inquiry processes, such as innovation and learning, that generate fundamentally new ways of working.
... Temporary organizations with a mandate to respond to crises are typically small, task-specific teams that are formed to exist for a limited period of time (Bechky & Okhuysen, 2011;Kalkman & de Waard, 2017;McLaren & Loosemore, 2019;Tempest, Starkey, & Ennew, 2007). They are also much less hierarchical and bureaucratic than their permanent counterparts or parent organizations (Bechky, 2006). ...
Projects and other temporary organizations play a key role in crisis response. However, little is known about how these organizations adapt and change over time as crises last. We conducted a qualitative, longitudinal study of emergent organizing in temporary crisis organizations. This paper focuses on the origins and development of three temporary organizations responding to the COVID-19 crisis in the Netherlands and how these evolved during the crisis. Results of this study show three stages of emergent organizing: identification of operational voids, dynamics of emergent organizing, and solidification. As such, we theorize how emergent organizing is initiated and how it unfolds in longitudinal crises. In this way, our study contributes to literature on project management, crisis management theory, and the general organization and management literature.
... Everyone survived. More mundane examples of novelty that required improvisation include introducing new software to a work setting (Orlikowski, 1996), coping with unusual customer queries (Tsoukas & Vladimirou, 2001), coping with staff absences during a film shooting (Bechky & Okhuysen, 2011) and navigating a large ship while suffering an engineering breakdown (Hutchins, 1991). ...
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Organizational improvisation (OI) is broadly understood as the capacity to engage in unplanned and purposeful action in response to changing circumstances in the context of organizations. Phenomenology can be broadly defined as the examination of everyday lived experience. This chapter has two purposes: (1) identify perspectives of improvisation in organizations and (2) offer a phenomenological critique that assists in outlining a phenomenological research agenda for future research. By reviewing 77 scholarly studies, the main conceptual assumptions that drive the studies’ theorization of OI are identified. Specifically, the three identified perspectives are the: metaphor, cognitivist and sociomaterial perspectives. Grasping the underlying theoretical drive of each perspective helps to achieve the second purpose: to subject each perspective to a phenomenological critique that can highlight the strengths and limitations of extant research in terms of understanding the lived experience of OI. Through the latter, the chapter concludes with an outline of an agenda for future research on the lived experience of improvising in organizations.
This paper examines the challenges posed to third sector organizations by major external crises that from time to time beset national and global communities. In so doing, it unpacks the multiple characteristics and complexities of concepts and related issues involved in organizational crisis management and resilience. This reveals the importance of shared sensemaking, issue identification, response types and implementation, organizational coping and adaptation, exploiting strategic opportunities, and conditioners of organizational resilience. Related insights are drawn from selected empirical studies involving non‐profit organizational crisis responses to a range of major crisis events. Accountability and management control implications are induced, and a relevant ongoing agenda for accounting research is presented.
The chapter aims to develop a theoretical configurational model of HRM practices for family firms based on the construct of awareness. The typology of ideal HRM practices configurations the authors developed grounds on are 1) two organizational factors (awareness of the internal and external environment and organizational awareness) and 2) two dimensions of organizational awareness (the need for explicit and implicit coordination mechanisms). The first dimension refers to the need for mechanisms explicitly adopted by a family firm to manage task or communication interdependencies. The second one relates to those requirements for mechanisms that are available to family firms from shared cognition, which enable them to explain and anticipate task statuses and individuals' collaborative behaviors, thus helping them in managing task interdependencies. The authors combined these results in four configurations of HRM practices (administrative, shared, professional, and integrated configurations) and developed seven propositions.
This chapter analyzes an organizational structural construct based on a framework for elements for reliability, safety, and deployment of organizational resources. It is assumed that theoretical and empirical studies in organizational resilience have limited contributions on the concepts of high-reliability organization applied to a diversity of entities and with a variety of characteristics. The method employed is the analytical reflective of the theoretical and empirical literature review. This study concludes that the emerging concept of organizational resilience confirms that the creation and development of an organizational resilience framework for structural construct can be supported by elements based on flexibility of organizational culture, organizational safety and reliability, the promotion elements, and the deployment of organizational resources.
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This edited volume, “Research on Corporate Sustainability”, contains reports written by experts in their areas of specialization. The volume begins by introducing a report on the interim system theory of corporate sustainability, which fills in the gap in the predominantly empirical field of corporate sustainability, and is followed by three reports on organizational resilience that are widely regarded as sustainability outcomes. Another set of reports is concerned with sustainable tourism and community development, as sustainable community development can often be sustained by the people who live there. Finally, the edited volume concludes with two reports on sustainable supply chain management and climate finance, which are seen as critical aspects of sustainable development.
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This research aims to understand the contribution of transformational leadership to employee Portuguese startups’ creativity. An empirical study was conducted using a quantitative methodological approach, with the application of an online questionnaire sent to Portuguese startups. 102 employee responses were validated. The results obtained showed the existence of a positive and significant relationship between transformational leadership and creativity in Portuguese startups. Therefore, we conclude that it is recommended that startups use this leadership style so that, as a consequence, they can obtain higher results in terms of organisational creativity.
- This paper describes the process of inducting theory using case studies from specifying the research questions to reaching closure. Some features of the process, such as problem definition and construct validation, are similar to hypothesis-testing research. Others, such as within-case analysis and replication logic, are unique to the inductive, case-oriented process. Overall, the process described here is highly iterative and tightly linked to data. This research approach is especially appropriate in new topic areas. The resultant theory is often novel, testable, and empirically valid. Finally, framebreaking insights, the tests of good theory (e.g., parsimony, logical coherence), and convincing grounding in the evidence are the key criteria for evaluating this type of research.
High Reliability Organizations (HROs) have been treated as exotic outliers in mainstream organizational theory because of their unique potentials for catastrophic consequences and interactively complex technology. We argue that HROs are more central to the mainstream because they provide a unique window into organizational effectiveness under trying conditions. HROs enact a distinctive though not unique set of cognitive processes directed at proxies for failure, tendencies to simplify, sensitivity to operations, capabilities for resilience, and temptations to overstructure the system. Taken together these processes induce a state of collective mindfulness that creates a rich awareness of discriminatory detail and facilitates the discovery and correction of errors capable of escalation into catastrophe. Though distinctive, these processes are not unique since they are a dormant infrastructure for process improvement in all organizations. Analysis of HROs suggests that inertia is not indigenous to organizing, that routines are effective because of their variation, that learning may be a byproduct of mindfulness, and that garbage cans may be safer than hierarchies.
The global technology strategy of Olivetti, a leading European computer firm, is analyzed over the last decade in order to illustrate how high-tech firms undergo transformations which not only tend to destroy their best core competencies, but also affect their very business identity. Task uncertainty is so pronounced that conventional ways of looking at the organizational structures and processes, such as the transaction costs approach or the strategy-structure link, need to be amended in favor of a more dynamic perspective. Such a perspective looks at organizations as platforms, or contexts, out of which specific structures are extracted, tried out and discarded in a pragmatic manner. A platform is a meta-organization, a formative context that molds structures, and routines shaping them into well-known forms, such as the hierarchy, the matrix and even the network, but on a highly volatile basis. Hence, the platform organization may appear to be confused and inefficient but its value lies in its readiness to sport whatever organizational form is required under the circumstances. Platforms are characterized by surprises, and organization members, no matter how they see themselves after the fact, are busy improvising and tinkering. Drawing on similar studies carried out in Silicon Valley, one can draw the conclusion that high-tech firms can survive if they are smart at doing what "savages do daily," i.e., bricolage.
The incident command system (ICS) is a particular approach to assembly and control of the highly reliable temporary organizations employed by many public safety professionals to manage diverse resources at emergency scenes. Our inductive study of a fire department's use of the ICS identified three main factors enabling this distinctively bureaucratic system to produce remarkably flexible and reliable organizations for complex, volatile task environments. This research suggests the possibility of new organizational forms able to capitalize on the control and efficiency benefits of bureaucracy while avoiding or overcoming its tendencies toward inertia.
We define organizational improvisation as the degree to which the composition and execution of an action converge in time, and we examine the theoretical potential of this definition. We then propose that both organizational procedural memory (skill knowledge) and declarative memory (fact knowledge) moderate improvisation's impact on organizational outcomes in distinct ways. We also suggest that improvisation influences organizational memory by (1) generating experiments and (2) permitting the development of higher-level competency in improvisation, Contemporary technological changes related to the nature of organizational memory intensify the salience of these issues.