Sense and sensemaking

28/01/2014 — Leave a comment

How do we  give meaning to experience in the midst of crisis?

Instead people strive to create a view of it by establishing a common framework into which events can be fitted to makes sense of the world, what Weick (1993) calls a process of sensemaking. And what is true for individuals is also true for the organisations they make up. In return people also use an organisation to make sense of what’s going on, especially in situations of uncertainty, ambiguity or contradiction.

Not that organisation need be particularly formal or constructed, really all that we need is to have a few people with a basic role structure of interlocking routines and voila according to Weick we have an organisation. Of course if an organisation can be constructed so casually then deconstructing it may not take much effort either. This fragility, Weick posits in his study of the Mann Gulch fire, results in people in such minimalist organisations, running a double jeopardy in crisis situations in which their constructed world view shears away at the same time that the structure of the organisation binding them together falls apart.

Weick’s thesis serves to explain much of the behaviour of small groups in highly uncertain and hazardous situations. Where we can see the organisation unravelling and individuals becoming overwhelmed by the situation, the group loosing cohesion and critical group internal relationships failing we can also see that the opportunity for failure is increased. Weick uses as an amplifying example the behaviour of the KLM crew in the Tenerife disaster as an example of the vulnerability of a small organisation to the combination of a dysfunctional structure, in that case poor communication and failure to challenge behaviour, and the almost inconceivable circumstance that an experienced captain would take off without clearance onto an occupied runway.

Our ability to deal with chaos depends on structures that have been developed before the chaos arrives. When the chaos arrives, it serves as an abrupt and brutal audit: at a moment’s notice, everything that was left unprepared becomes a complex problem and every weakness comes rushing to the forefront. The breech in the defences opened by crisis creates a sort of vacuum

Pat Lagadac

Weickian theory gives us a different perspective of the Air France AF 447 disaster. While the focus of attention has fallen upon the actions of the crew in the last minutes of flight if we look look further back we start to see factors present that promote an erosion of organisational coherence. Conversely if we take the existing structure of captain and pilots seriously we also see a progressive failure of the captain as leader to build and sustain such a structure. The first indication we have that something is not right is in the failure of the crew to have studied the storm patterns in the ITC and asked for, or even seriously discussed, a divergence, unlike other aircraft crews. Then there is the captains subsequent failure to decisively respond to the pilot flying (PFs) concerns over flight level, and to subsequently explain his understanding of the situation to the PF and to explicitly recognise the PFs anxiety about the situation. Next we have the absence of the captain from the flight deck during the passage through the ITCZ, a critical phase of flight given the challenges posed by both turbulence and icing, and finally we have his parting failure to explicitly define who was in charge in his absence, leading to ambiguity in roles between the PF and PNF.

All these factors served to erode the organisational structure that tied the crew of AF 447 together, including the captains command legitimacy; and as those bonds untied so to did the crews ability to communicate and work together coherently when dealing with a situation which presented an existential crisis. In such circumstances it is unsurprising that the actions of the PF and PNF appear at times to be in conflict and to have reverted to first learned responses, while not recognising, or acknowledging the unthinkable fact that they were in a high speed stall.

From a Weickian perspective the broader conclusion that we can draw from such incidents is that structural resilience may not matter that much when the organisation is responding to an event which is well understood, but it becomes critically important when the event is surprisal in nature or a crisis situation contains a high degree of uncertainty. Resilience it appears may not guarantee success in uncertainty, but it’s absence in such circumstances is almost certainly a guarantee of failure.

References

Weick, K.E., The collapse of sensemaking in organizations: The Mann Gulch disaster, Administrative Science Quarterly, 38, 628–652. 1993.

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