17 August 2010

A Great Read

This past weekend I finished reading Managing The Unexpected, by Karl E. Weick and Kathleen M. Sutcliffe, a study of how organizations respond to surprise and how leaders can work together to create high reliability organizations (HROs) in which dealing with the unexpected is the norm and are characterized by extraordinary resiliency in the face of significant adverse events.

Think of the unexpected events that we’ve had to deal with in the past ten years that have impacted every aspect of our profession and how we operate:
• Bombing of USS COLE
• 9/11 Attacks on our homeland
• Hurricane Katrina
• The Christmas Tsunami in South East Asia
• The Financial Collapse of 2008-2009
And now think of the unexpected events that occur on a smaller scale that we deal with every day.

Why is it some organizations and commands are much more capable than others of maintaining function and structure in the face of drastic change and appear to be able to bounce back in a stronger posture to tackle the next unexpected crisis?

The authors seek to answer that question by studying the ways people and organizations organize for high performance in settings where the potential for error and disaster is overwhelming: emergency medical treatment teams, aircraft operations systems, wild-land firefighting crews, and aircraft carrier flight decks.

These organizations have no choice but to operate reliably, under great stress, every day. One common element these HROs have is an uncommon skill at finding ways to stay MINDFUL about what is happening.

Developing this institutional MINDFULNESS is important – HROs organize themselves in such a way that they are better able to notice the unexpected event early in the making and either halt its development or quickly develop a containment plan. If the unexpected event breaks through the containment, HROs focus on resilience – bounce back – and swift restoration of system functionality.

Another important point made in this book was the increased susceptibility to unexpected events of organizations that are tightly coupled and interactively complex. A tightly coupled system or organization has little slack – actions in one part of the system directly and immediately affect other parts. Organizations dependent upon interconnected technologies or interconnected resource demands (e.g. “just in time” logistics) are tightly coupled and very vulnerable to an unexpected event that will proceed rapidly and irreversibly though the entire system.

I found this book to be extremely relevant on several levels and equally applicable to those on sea duty or shore duty, serving in small units or large ones, or in large commands like USFF or smaller commands like our Navy Munitions Command. At the heart of a reliable and resilient organization is a powerful culture built around practices that work.

It’s not enough to be knowledgeable of the principles that underlay institutional MINDFULNESS; it is also important that the organization’s culture weaves the principles of MINDFULNESS into values, expectations, and norms that drive local practices. These practices are what enable MINDFUL organizations to hold complex undertakings together or respond rapidly and effectively to unexpected events because they truly understand what is happening.

This book is a great read – well-written, relevant to our profession and our operating environment, and thought provoking. I strongly recommend it to you.





I guess we've been reading along similar lines. Specifically, what I've been reading about are Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS) and how they work as a model for everything from social groups to electrical distribution grids (the DoE is doing some awesome work on decision making in relation to CASes as well). They self regulate (for the most part) and are resilient to major perturbations.

I am not 100% sure of what is meant by 'mindfulness'. But, I guess it is safe to assume that each 'agent' (to borrow a term from CAS) in the organization needs to not only know what is going on in their environment, but also understand how it will affect the other agents and what needs to be done because of it. Is it also safe to assume that in successful HROs, agents are easily able to communicate across their organization with the other agents? C2 is relatively flat, decision making decentralized? Most of those traits are hallmarks of CASes.

I got to give a brief in my ships wardroom once. It was on the Battle of the Nile, swarm tactics and 'the Nelson touch'. My premise was that Nelson decentralized his C2 (really he basically gave it up to his CAPTs), he favored swarm-like (basically a CAS) tactics, and that he was able to pull this off because of the amount of training his Sailors had, he gave simple yet implicit orders and then trusted his CAPTs to carry the day. His style of leadership is the best example I can find of how to lead a CAS or HRO.

YN2(SW) Battle Yeoman

Anonymous said...

Thanks Admiral for pointing out this book. I wonder how the authors approach the necessity (IMO) for institutional trust in successful HROs? Not only trust up and down the structure's organization, but trust among the lateral organizations that are part of an HROs environment. Battle Yeoman's comment touches on the element of trust down (and up) among Nelson's captains; the best performing commands display similar kinds of trust among their leadership triangle, among the wardroom and CPO Mess, and throughout the crew itself. In my mind, this is the whole point of "good order and discipline" - inculcating trust that the Sailors you're with and for.

I'll be interested to see how Wieck & Sutcliffe approach this point in their book. VR/AJM

NVYGUNZ said...


Sounds like a great book Sir. I'll add it to my list for this year. I have been blowing through books about every three weeks lately. Some for leisure, some for professional development. Last two were "Outliers" and "What the Dog Saw", by Malcolm Gladwell, which where both for leisure. I am now reading the “Six Frigates”. Started it a couple years back, but never finished it.

My favorite book this year has been "The Speed of Trust", by Stephen M.R. Covey, son of the renowned Stephen R. Covey. In my line of work, I need to be able to trust the Sailors/Staff that work with or for me. I also lead remotely, so trust is an important principle in which I live by. It is also one of the key principles in my leadership philosophy I have posted.

One are that stuck out to me in this particular book was, many leaders don’t know how to extend proper trust. They delegate tasks without parameters or extend fake trust, but they don’t fully entrust people with stewardships that engages genuine ownership and accountability. Further, they do not know at what levels to extend their trust. It is not necessary to extend trust automatically or exclusively. You can extend limited trust or no trust at all. The decision is yours, but the approach and acceptance of risk always builds trust, whether you are a leader or a parent.




since you suggested some books, I give you my 'best of the IA tour' books.

Best Naval book I've read all year:

"Maritime Supremacy and the Opening of the Western Mind--Naval Campaigns that shaped the modern world", by Peter Padfield.

(honorable mentions: "The Naval War of 1812", by Theodore Roosevelt. "The Two Ocean War--A short history of the USN in WWII", by S.E. Morison)

Best strategy book I've read:

"Science, Strategy and War--The strategic theory of John Boyd", by Frans P. B. Osinga

Best history book I've read:

"Nothing Less Than Victory--Decisive Wars and the Lessons of History", by John David Lewis

Best (science) fiction:

The HALO series, based on the video game.

Interestingly, the HALO series and JD Lewis' book go hand-in-hand. As both concern themselves with what victory in an all-out war really is and what it takes.

YN2(SW) Battle Yeoman