Avoiding Org. Disasters LO7287

Wed, 8 May 1996 04:16:40 -0400

[Subject line by your host; Fred's was "Prepare Your Organization
to Fight Fires," which unfortunately is too long. ...Rick]

From: Fred Nickols, nickols@aol.com

Karl Weick, whose thinking I've always appreciated, has a piece appearing
in the May-June issue of the Harvard Business Review. It is titled
"Prepare Your Organization to Fight Fires," and it is very relevant, I
believe, to those interested in why total quality management (TQM) meets
with spotty success, why business process reengineering (BPR) seems to
have come and gone, and, in general, why executives seem caught up in a
never-ending search for silver bullets.

Weick's piece is, of all things, a book review. And, it is of a book
published in 1992. Adding to what I see as a mystery, an earlier version
of Weick's review was published in Administrative Science Quarterly in

So why would the HBR publish an already-published book review of a book
now four years old?

I think the reason is that Weick has put his finger on two issues with
which we have all been grappling: the collapse of organization, and the
failure of leadership in the face of a threat-laden and uncertain

Weick's review is of Norman MacLean's book, Young Men and Fire, published
in 1992 after MacLean's death in 1990. MacLean was writing about a tragic
incident at Mann Gulch, Montana, in 1949, in which 13 young men,
professional fire fighters, lost their lives to a forest fire. They died
because their organization collapsed and thus their leader could not lead.
MacLean was pursuing the answer to this question:

"What should the structure of a small group be
when its business is to meet sudden danger and
prevent disaster?"

Weick captures the larger lessons to be learned in a single paragraph:

"There are larger lessons in this tragedy for those whose job it is to
make sense of environments that suddenly change from the expected to the
unexpected, the inconceivable, or the incomprehensible. To point the way
to safety in the face of surprise, leaders today need to develop resilient
groups that are capable of four things: improvisation, wisdom, respectful
interaction, and communication."

If you wonder about the never-ending search for silver bullets, and the
sometimes inexplicable behavior of senior executives, you might do well to
read Weick's review, even if you don't read MacLean's book.

In the last analysis, what Weick has put his finger on is the issue of
"sense-making," of being able to decipher that jumble of scrambled sound
bites and high-sounding rhetoric, moves and maneuvers, and signs and
signals from which we all try to extract meaning as we fight the fires we
face in the work place.


Fred Nickols

P.S. Karl Weick, for those who don't know, is the Rensis Likert
Collegiate Professor of Organizational Behavior at the University of
Michigan's School of Business in Ann Arbor.



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