Managing the Unexpected:
Assuring High Performance in an Age of Complexity, Vol. 1

by Karl E. Weick and Kathleen M. Sutcliffe

From the Publisher

One of the great challenges any business or organization can face is how to deal with the unexpected. While traditional managerial practices such as planning are designed to manage unexpected threats, they often make things worse. How do you organize for high performance in a setting where the potential for error and disaster is overwhelming? In this book, the ninth in the University of Michigan Business School Management Series, Karl Weick and Kathleen Sutcliffe look to high reliability organizations (HROs) -- aircraft carriers, nuclear power plants, firefighting crews, and others -- for the answer. HROs have developed ways of acting that provide a template for all organizations that want to be more reliable in managing the unexpected.

Managing the Unexpected shows executives and upper level managers how to manage under trying conditions. The authors reveal how HROs create a collective state of mindfulness that produces an enhanced ability to discover and correct errors before they escalate into a crisis. Through a discussion of this principle and the practices that can be used to apply it, the authors show how to anticipate and respond to threats with flexibility rather than rigidity. Their practical, solutions-oriented approach includes numerous case studies demonstrating "mindful" practices and enables readers to assess and implement mindfulness in their own organizations.

What Business Can Learn from High Reliability Organizations

A leading manufacturer of integrated circuits expects to boost competitiveness by dramatically improving quality and doubling capacity, but it unexpectedly finds its share price falling as customers switch to the new products being offered by its competitors.

A premier forest products firm continues production during a normal trough in the business cycle, only to be surprised by a deeper and more long-lasting trough than they ever expected.

The responsible manager of the largest corporate division of a consumer products firm suddenly realizes that his market has been conquered by a certain competitor - -a development that his subordinates suspected had been building steadily for several years.

As these examples show, the unexpected doesn't take the form of a major crisis. Instead, it is triggered by a deceptively simple sequence in organizational life: A person or unit has an intention, takes action, misunderstands the world; actual events fail to coincide with the intended sequence; and there is an unexpected outcome. People dislike unexpected outcomes and surprises. Because of that, they sometimes make situations worse. That's the tragedy that motivates this book.

We suspect that the inability to manage the unexpected lies behind a number of the pressing problems that executives face. Problems, after all, occur either when something that we expected to happen fails to happen or something that we did not expect to happen does happen. For example, consider the chief concerns of today's business professionals reported in the first annual (2000) University of Michigan Business School Pressing Problems survey. The second most frequent problem executives reported was "thinking and planning strategically"; the third most pressing problem was "maintaining a high-performance climate." From our perspective, both these problems are variants of one that is the focus of this book, dealing with unexpected events. Whether the issue is strategy or performance, problems become more pressing when expected strategy and performance outcomes fail to materialize or when unexpected impediments to strategy and performance materialize. Either scenario is a brush with the unexpected. And in either case people often take too long to recognize that their expectations are being violated and that a problem is growing more severe. Moreover, once they belatedly recognize that the unexpected is unfolding, their efforts at containment are misplaced.

In general, people can manage unexpected events poorly, in which case the events spiral, get worse, and disrupt ongoing activity; or they can manage them well, in which case the events shrink and ongoing activity continues. How you can improve your organization's management of the unexpected is the subject of this book.

What does it mean to manage an unexpected event well? Good management of the unexpected is mindful management of the unexpected. That answer comes from careful study of organizations that operate under very trying conditions all the time and yet manage to have fewer than their fair share of accidents. These organizations, which are referred to collectively as high reliability organizations (HROs), include power grid dispatching centers, air traffic control systems, nuclear aircraft carriers, nuclear power generating plants, hospital emergency departments, and hostage negotiation teams. The better of these organizations rarely fail even though they encounter numerous unexpected events. They face an "excess" of unexpected events because their technologies are complex and their constituencies are varied in their demands -- and because the people who run these systems, like all of us, have an incomplete understanding of their own systems and what they face.

We attribute the success of HROs in managing the unexpected to their determined efforts to act mindfully. By this we mean that they organize themselves in such a way that they are better able to notice the unexpected in the making and halt its development. If they have difficulty halting the development of the unexpected, they focus on containing it. And if some of the unexpected breaks through the containment, they focus on resilience and swift restoration of system functioning.

When we call this approach mindful, we mean that HROs strive to maintain an underlying style of mental functioning that is distinguished by continuous updating and deepening of increasingly plausible interpretations of what the context is, what problems define it, and what remedies it contains. The key difference between HROs and other organizations in managing the unexpected often occurs in the earliest stages, when the unexpected may give off only weak signals of trouble. The overwhelming tendency is to respond to weak signals with a weak response. Mindfulness preserves the capability to see the significant meaning of weak signals and to give strong responses to weak signals. This counterintuitive act holds the key to managing the unexpected.

This book is grounded in the assumption that high reliability organizations enact on a larger scale what all of us try to do well on a much smaller one. We can all get better at managing the unexpected if we pay more attention to those who have no choice but to do it well.

Managing the Unexpected Managing the Unexpected:
Assuring High Performance in an Age of Complexity, Vol. 1

by Karl E. Weick and Kathleen M. Sutcliffe
Jossey-Bass Inc. 2001

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