Karl Weick is one of my main guys. The Social Psychology of Organizing and Sensemaking In Organizations are deservedly classics but each of his books are terrific. Anyway…in the aftermath of the earlier MAZE THE COURSE post, the following excerpts from an interview Dr. Weick gave in 2003 are timely. Incidentally, he’s speaking here of what he calls the HRO, the High Reliability Organization.

The key difference between HROs and other organizations is the sensitivity or mindfulness with which people in most HROs react to even very weak signs that some kind of change or danger is approaching. In contrast to HROs, most companies today are hugely unprepared for the unpredictable. Managers are under the illusion that they know more or less what’s going to happen next or how other people are likely to act. That’s both arrogant and dangerous. Not only do those managers ignore the possibility that something unexpected will happen but they also forget that the decisions they do make can have unintended consequences.


Can organizations learn to be more mindful?
They can, by adopting some of the practices that high-reliability organizations use. For instance, besides being fixated on failure, HROs are also fiercely committed to resilience and sensitive to operations. Managers at these organizations keep their attention focused on the front line, where the work really gets done. For example, among wildland firefighters, the most successful incident commanders are those who listen best to the people out there actually fighting the fires. HROs also defer to expertise, and they refuse to simplify reality. This last point is particularly important because it has profound implications for executives. As I have often written, leaders must complicate themselves in order to keep their organizations in touch with the realities of the business world


he problem with defining and refining your hypotheses without testing them is that the world keeps changing, and your analyses get further and further behind. So you’ve got to constantly update your thinking while you’re sitting there and reflecting. And that’s why I’m such a proponent of what I call “sensemaking.” There are many definitions of sensemaking; for me it is the transformation of raw experience into intelligible world views. It’s a bit like what mapmakers do when they try to make sense of an unfamiliar place by capturing it on paper. But the crucial point in cartography is that there is no one best map of a particular terrain. Similarly, sensemaking lends itself to multiple, conflicting interpretations, all of which are plausible. If an organization finds itself unsure of where it’s going, or even where it’s been, then it ought to be wide open to a lot of different interpretations, all of which can lead to possible action. The action and its consequence then begin to edit the list of interpretations down to a more manageable size.

And this is the point I wish to underscore: Action, tempered by reflection, is the critical component in recovering from cosmology episodes. Once you start to act, you can flesh out your interpretations and rework them. But it’s the action itself that gets you moving again. That’s why I advise leaders to leap in order to look, or to leap while looking. There’s a beautiful example of this: Several years ago, a platoon of Hungarian soldiers got lost in the Alps. One of the soldiers found a map in his pocket, and the troops used it to get out safely. Subsequently, however, the soldiers discovered that the map they had used was, in fact, a drawing of another mountain range, the Pyrenees. I just love that story, because it illustrates that when you’re confused, almost any old strategic plan can help you discover what’s going on and what should be done next. In crises especially, leaders have to act in order to think – and not the other way around.


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  1. Frank H. Wilson

    I really enjoy Karl Weick’s work too! They practically founded the High Reliability Organizing school of thought with Karlene Roberts (1993, and before). I noticed that all the HRO folks are meeting in France in Deauville (!) next May. I found that here:

  2. Frank H. Wilson

    Sorry guys, that’s a wrong link for last year.
    This year’s event is here: http://www.hro2007.org/index.html

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