Monday, September 26, 2011

Managing the Unexpected

Managing the Unexpected: Resilient Performance in an Age of Uncertainty, (2007) by business school professors Karl E. Weick and Kathleen M. Sutcliffe, is a much-praised business practices book for those who want, or need, to step out of their comfort zones. The book brings many of its examples from what it calls "High Reliability Organizations" or HROs - businesses that need to anticipate surprises and uncertainty, like woodland firefighters or nuclear power plant operators. Some of the knowledge set out here can usefully be applied to the operations of a not-for-profit providing human services or arts support.

A crisis, or what the authors call a brutal audit, tests a program's operating systems - and everything that is unprepared becomes a weakness in a crisis. So what's their prescription? Operating in a manner that the authors call mindfulness. More specifically, that means:

     * Pay close attention to weak signals that may be symptoms of larger problems
     * Don't be too willing to interpret or simplify
     * Pay attention to operations - ie, the be responsive to the messy reality that exists within even the most carefully designed systems
     * Respond to the unexpected by improvising if you have to, and using expertise where you find it and
     * When you have a near-miss, look at it as an opportunity to learn.

Despite its unfortunate lapses into B-School jargon and some generality of expression, this book has several extremely helpful audits and tips, and includes the best discussion of understanding and changing organizational culture that I have ever read. It took a while to understand what the authors mean by "mindfulness," and I finally concluded that it means something like the watchfulness you have to have when you're driving - driving itself doesn't take too much effort, but you need to be aware of what's happening around you so you can respond when the car in the next lane drifts into yours. (And that's why talking on the phone while you're driving is such a risk.)

I was also provoked by the authors' insistence that managing by the numbers is not necessarily a useful practice in high reliability organizations, since the usual thesis of this blog is that managing by numbers is important. But on further contemplation I concluded that managing by numbers is an important first step, and that what you conclude from the numbers is where you have to be mindful. After all, interpretation of results is a form of simplification, as is categorization. When you're using numbers, you do have to reexamine them at least annually, and the lens of mindfulness that Weick and Sutcliffe lay out is an extremely useful one.

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