Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Error and Blame, part 2

[Part 1 here]

In his 1993 ASQ piece on the Mann Gulch disaster, Karl Weick attributed the deaths of thirteen young men to "multiple failures of leadership", specifically, a lacking "attitude of wisdom" that manifested itself in the "stubborn belief" that they would have the fire out by morning. In his 1996 EAQ application of this analysis to the problems of educational administrators, he said that "Better leadership, mindful that small events conceal the potential for interactive complexity, would have encouraged the jumpers to adopt the attitude of wisdom and simultaneously believe and doubt that they were facing a 10:00 fire." In both cases, that is, a scholar is criticising the work of a leader. And the criticism here is, of course, quite serious: he is blaming the leader for thirteen deaths. He is saying that better leadership could have saved them.

On Monday, I argued that, in making this case, Weick gets the basic facts wrong. It is simply not true that the firefighters held on to their belief that the fire would be out by morning. In a certain sense, it wasn't even a belief; it was simply their job to do everything they could to have it under control by morning. And one of the first decisions that was made in the Gulch that day was to give up the idea that this goal could be accomplished, precisely because they did not "ignore clues" (as Weick claims) about the impending danger.

So what?

That's a question I seriously hear quite often from sensemaking scholars. On this view, it doesn't matter that Weick got the story wrong because he never meant it as an empirical, factual account of the events in the Gulch; he meant it as an "allegory" for business leaders and public administrators. Never mind that Weick presents the story as true. Never mind that he spends two and a half pages describing "the methodology" used by Norman Maclean to construct his account (resulting in the book Young Men and Fire), concluding by urging us to "take these data seriously". Never mind that he later brags that his paper "was read by a forest ranger, who passed the article to firefighting friends, who asked me how I had come up with my analysis, which they thought was better than their own investigations.” (Weick 2007: 15). For some scholars the important question is whether their analyses generate advice that leaders find useful, not whether the events described actually happened.

What these scholars forget is something that Maclean was very conscious of when writing his book. At one point he reflects upon everything he has learned about the disaster, and how long it took to get it right. (Let's remember that even at the time of his death he was not satisfied. The book was published posthumously.)

It's different with me now from when I first started climbing Mann Gulch. Now I carry inside me part of the purgation of its tragedy. It is the part of me and the tragedy that knows more about forests and fires because of this forest fire. If now the dead of this fire should awaken and I should be stopped beside a cross, I would no longer be nervous if asked the first and last question of life, How did it happen? (Maclean 1992, page 87)

At the end of the book he says that to write it he had to "enlarge [his] knowledge and spirit so [he] could accompany young men whose lives [he] might have lived on their way to death" (page 300). He tells us that, after he rose from the ashes of his escape fire, Wagner Dodge, their leader, "had his own brief tragedy to live, which in some ways must be considered a part of this tragedy."

Weick, by contrast, had spent no time in the Gulch at all. His analysis "flowed from a single book [he] consumed while acting as an armchair ethnographer." Indeed, the time Weick spent on his analysis can be plotted quite precisely. Maclean's book was published in 1992, but Weick's analysis was spurred by an approaching lecture he had agreed to do in April 1993. "The normally smooth trajectory of developing a lecture," Weick cheerfully explains, "was interrupted by the basic fact that I had nothing to talk about." But at around this time, it seems, he was discussing the book in a book club. That was enough to let him write his lecture "in a preliminary fashion", which he was then invited, by Bob Sutton, to publish in ASQ. From the time of the lecture to the time of publication, in December 1993, only eight months passed. On this basis, then, Weick gives us an account of a panicked crew under incompetent leadership.

I wonder. Would he be nervous if the dead of that fire should stop him by a cross and ask him what he thinks happened to them—why they died? What, I wonder, would he say to Wagner Dodge?

[Continues here]


Jonathan said...

Is any of the sensemaking literature legit? Are any of his references solid? I know you've debunked this one and the "any map will do" poem.

Anonymous said...

@Jonathon: More than a dozen years ago, I had a doctoral student who completed one of his dissertation papers on sensemaking in the pharmaceutical industry. He successfully treated sensemaking as a mental mapping process that could use the failures in the drug R&D pipeline to re-engineer product development choices in future years. We decided against using "any map will do" and the firefighting metaphor explicitly. At the time I had great hopes for Max Black's account of scientific metaphor. In Black's account, metaphors cannot be one-way analogies; one has to use an interactive approach. How are fires like drug trials? How are drug trials like fires? Therefore, what are the specific limitations of the metaphor so that the use of the metaphor has explanatory power? Weick didn't use this approach (see Thomas' difficulties with the metaphor of firefighting as university administration), so i was not willing to let one-way analogical models be a centerpiece to my student's account of sensemaking. In sum, I think sensemaking is legit -- mental models are good science, but I still distrust the breezy metaphors.

Jonathan said...

Thanks! I still want to know if any of Weick's work holds up.

Thomas said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Thomas said...

[I woke up a bit grumpy this morning it seems and wrote a somewhat too thorough response to Jonathan. Its point requires a post of its own.]

The short answer is that I'm still looking for something of obvious, incontrovertible value in Weick's work. But it's like Randy says (and maybe this is to Weick's credit, or to the credit of the tradition his work emerged from): Weick's actual studies notwithstanding, the concept of "sensemaking" is an important part of our understanding of the organising process.

Anonymous said...

Good idea to separate the analysis of sensemaking from the assessment of Weick's particular version. (Notwithstanding his status in the milieu.) Might I suggest a review and prospectus of sensemaking as a point of departure? You can find a piece by Sally Maitlis and Marlys Christianson in the 2014 Annals of Management.

Thomas said...

I've looked at that piece and, yes, it seems like a place to start. I was a bit puzzled, however, about the narrowness of their definition. They seemed to say sensemaking is always a response to the unexpected or novel. Haven't looked at it cllosely yet though.

Anonymous said...

That narrowness may be laid at the feet of Weick, IMHO. I believe he starts with making sense of novel or unexpected events. After all, one doesn't need to make sense of something that makes sense... ;-)

Thomas said...

I guess I've always wanted to distinguish an "ordinary" kind of sensemaking from the more "critical" kind. Weick usually defines sensemaking merely as "the ongoing retrospective development of plausible images that rationalize what people are doing". This, to me, is ordinary, workaday sensemaking. Critical sensemaking, i.e., what you need in a crisis, is what happens when the images aren't developing quickly enough to keep up with events. I.e., when it becomes very difficult to rationalise what people are doing in real time.