Karl Weick

Complexity and the Unexpected

Examine how your organization treats feedback:

  • Track down bad news.
  • Keep asking people: Have you noticed anything out of the ordinary?
  • Try to see what your expectations keep you from seeing.
  • Create an error-friendly learning culture.

Appreciate the traps of short-term success:

  • Success narrows perceptions and feeds confidence in a single way of doing business.

Plans can do the opposite of what is intended:

  • Since plans are built from assumptions and beliefs about the world, they embody expectations.
  • Strong expectations influence what people see, what they choose to take for granted, what they choose to ignore, and the length of time it takes to recognize small problems that are growing.
  • Plans influence perceptions by reducing the number of things people notice. People encode their work largely into the categories activated by the plan.
  • Plans presume that consistent high-quality outcomes will be produced time after time if people repeat patterns of activity that have worked well in the past.

The problem with this logic is that routines can’t handle novel events.

Plans can nurture mindlessness:

  • Those who invest heavily in plans, standard operating procedures, protocols, recipes, and routines tend to invest more heavily in mindlessness than in mindfulness.
  • Sensing becomes restricted to expectations built into the plans.
  • The result is a system less able to sense discrepancies, less able to update understanding and learning, and less able to recombine actions into new ways to handle the unexpected.

Two ways of dealing with the unexpected:

  • By means of anticipation: Sinking resources into specific defenses against particular anticipated risks
  • By means of resilience: Retaining resources in a form sufficiently flexible – storable, convertible, malleable – to cope with whatever unanticipated harms might emerge

Quoted with the Weick book: Aaron Wildavsky, Searching for Safety, page 220, 1981

All ideas quoted or modified based on the work of Karl Weick, Managing the Unexpected: Assuring High Performance in an Age of Complexity, Jossey-Bass (July 3, 2001)

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