Summary of Managing the Unexpected

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Karl E. Weick and Kathleen M. Sutcliffe give readers something new and useful in this book. Countless manuals explain how to plan for crises and make it sound like everything will go smoothly if you just plan correctly. Weick and Sutcliffe know better. Planning, they say, may even stand in the way of smooth processes or be the cause of failure. They base this discussion on their studies of “high reliability organizations” (HROs), like fire fighting units and aircraft carrier crews, organizations where the unexpected is common, small events make a difference, failure is a strong possibility and lives are on the line. From those examples, they deduce principles for planning, preparation and action that will apply to any company facing change. The book is not perfect – the authors overuse quotations and rely on buzzwords that don’t add much – but it addresses often-neglected aspects of management. getAbstract recommends it to anyone who is trying to make an organization more reliable and resilient amid change.

About the Authors

Karl E. Weick wrote The Social Psychology of Organizing. He teaches at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, where Kathleen M. Sutcliffe is the associate dean.



Learning from High Reliability Organizations

Things you don’t expect to occur actually happen to you every day. Most surprises are minor, like a staff conflict, but some aren’t, like a blizzard. Some test your organization to the verge of destruction. You can’t plan for the unexpected, and in many cases, planning actually sets you up to respond incorrectly. You make assumptions about how the world is and what’s likely to happen. Unfortunately, many people try to make their worldview match their expectations, and thus ignore or distort signs that something different is happening. People look for confirmation that they’re correct, not that they’re wrong.

Planning also focuses organizational action on specific, anticipated areas, which shuts down improvisation. When people plan, they also tend to “repeat patterns of activity that have worked in the past.” That works well if things stay the same – but when they change and the unexpected erupts, you are left executing solutions that don’t really fit your new situation.

Consider organizations such as hospital emergency departments or nuclear power plants, which have to cope with extraordinary situations on a regular...

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