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Managing the Unexpected: Assuring High Performance in an Age of Complexity (J-B US non-Franchise Leadership) Hardcover – 20 Jul 2001

4.3 out of 5 stars 3 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Jossey Bass; Reprint edition (20 July 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0787956279
  • ISBN-13: 978-0787956271
  • Product Dimensions: 16.2 x 2.3 x 23.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 535,853 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


"Of all the people Tom and I quoted in In Search of Excellence Karl Weick was hands down the most influential. As a researcher and thought leader on matters organizational and strategic, Karl gets an eleven on my scale of one to ten. Now Weick and Sutcliffe have written on a subject they have been researching for a very long time: excellence in responding to crisis in organizational settings that are inherently complex and dangerous. The differences they find between these organizations and the ones that, well, kill people have much to teach us all, even those of us operating in less dangerous settings. I loved this book, even the footnotes." (Bob Waterman, coauthor, In Search of Excellence)

"The cost of unpleasant surprises in business is escalating. Missed earnings or late and unsafe products or services, for example, can result in disastrous consequences for a company and its management . . . . Weick and Sutcliffe offer five sound organizational principles for building a company that delivers what it promises. This is an exceptionally well written and practical book that can ensure your company′s future." (Michael Beer, Cahners–Rabb Professor of Business Administration, Harvard Business School)

"For anyone who wants a better understanding of how organizations and leaders can cope with and master ambiguity, uncertainty, and change, this is the first and best book to go to." (Warren Bennis, University Professor and Distinguished Professor of Business Administration, University of Southern California Marshall School of Business, and coauthor, Geeks and Geezers)

"Breaks important new ground in organization theory and provides extremely relevant insights for leaders who want to create high performance cultures that are also truly adaptable and resilient. Written in a captivating style, filled with evocative examples and pragmatic guidelines, this book should be mandatory reading for both theorist and practitioner alike." (John Seely Brown, former director Xerox Palo Alto Research Center and coauthor, The Social Life of Information, HBSP 2000)

"A must read for managers and others in organizations with low tolerance for error. Weick and Sutcliffe′s book is filled with recipes for success." (Karlene H. Roberts, professor, Walter A. Haas School of Business, University of California, Berkeley)

"′s worth reading..." (Professional Manager, January 2002)

"′s worth reading..." (Professional Manager, January 2002)

From the Inside Flap

One of the great challenges any business or organization can face is how to deal with the unexpected. While traditional managerial practices such as planning are designed to manage unexpected threats, they often make things worse. How do you organize for high performance in a setting where the potential for error and disaster is overwhelming? In this book, the ninth in the University of Michigan Business School Management Series, Karl Weick and Kathleen Sutcliffe look to high reliability organizations (HROs)? aircraft carriers, nuclear power plants, fire–fighting crews, and others–for the answer. HROs have developed ways of acting that provide a template for all organizations that want to be more reliable in managing the unexpected. Managing the Unexpected shows executives and upper level managers how to manage under trying conditions. The authors reveal how HROs create a collective state of mindfulness that produces an enhanced ability to discover and correct errors before they escalate into a crisis. Through a discussion of this principle and the practices that can be used to apply it, the authors show how to anticipate and respond to threats with flexibility rather than rigidity. Their practical, solutions–oriented approach includes numerous case studies demonstrating "mindful" practices and enables readers to assess and implement mindfulness in their own organizations. THE AUTHORS Karl E. Weick is the Rensis Likert Collegiate Professor of Organizational Behavior and Psychology and professor of psychology at the University of Michigan Business School. His book, The Social Psychology of Organizing (1979), was designated by James Collins in Inc. magazine as one of the nine best business books ever written. Kathleen M. Sutcliffe is assistant professor of organizational behavior and human resource management at the University of Michigan Business School. She has published numerous articles on cognitive and experiential diversity in top management teams and on organizational performance.

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Karl Weick's ideas have never ceased to make me think. Here, along with Kathleen Sutcliffe, he presents a version of his thinking about how organisations respond to crises aimed at management.
The ideas will not be knew to anyone familiar with Weick's past writing (his extended essays on Mann Gluch and (with Karlene Roberts) Aircraft Carrier Flight Decks are amoung his best in the early 90s. The argument is that how people in organisations respond to certain events often makes the difference between a disaster and a reliable organisation. These reponses are mediated by the social context created by the organisation.
In this book, Weick and Sutcliffe make an effort to extend these ideas to all organisations. All organisations are on the verge of a 'disaster' -- all can benefit from the secrets of high-reliability management.
How successful is it?
Firstly, the argument that all organisations can learn from High Reliability Organisations (HROs) is not completely convincing. The simple fact is it relies on their being a degree of slack in the organisation which would cost money. It is not a simple cost-benefit analysis: the benefits are often hidden, the costs not always clear.
The second problem is the diluting of the very rich ideas. In his analysis of the flight deck of an aircraft carrier, Weick developed a sophisticated model of collective mind. This model has been reduced to the concept of 'mindfulness' in this book, which is the secret to successful management of high reliability organisations. This shows Weick's hand in what he finds to be the most important of the ideas in his earlier, more academic papers. But it is still a weakened form of the complex ideas he has presented elsewhere.
The third problem is 'how-to' like guide for successful management.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.4 out of 5 stars 21 reviews
46 of 51 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Leatherman for the complex organization 19 Aug. 2001
By Mike Kircher - Published on
Format: Hardcover
I have read and enjoyed several of Weick's books and articles on organizational performance. For the most part, they were difficult, but insightful works on how people in organizations behave. But it was not easy to translate the insights I gleaned from Weick's work into tools and strategies to improve the performance of the organization which employs me (a small hospital).
In Managing the Unexpected, Weick and coauthor Sutcliffe have written a short book that summarizes the insights gained from studying high reliability organizations (HROs) and details "doable" strategies to enable other organizations to improve their own reliability. The book's use of several case studies, detailing of key strategies and techniques, and chapter summaries make it a quick and interesting read. What is most valuable, though, is that a person working in an HRO, or an organization that should aspire to such a status, can immediately take the techniques and strategies detailed in the book and start to use them to improve the organization's performance and reliability.
Despite the fact that this book offers concrete strategies to improve organizational performance, it admits right from the start that successful HROs are extremely complex organizations. The authors allow the reader to appreciate that the success of these organizations in delivering quality products and services under often adverse circumstances is due to cadres of employees with diverse perspectives, skills, and expertise, that respect the complexity of the organization, and are willing to allow important decisions to be made by the individuals with the greatest understanding of the current situation.
Thus, although Managing the Unexpected provides concrete tools and strategies for improving organizational performance, it also emphasizes the importance of mindfulness for employees working in HROs, or organizations endeavoring to such status. Mindfulness includes working constantly to be aware of the complexity of the organization, its environment, and that our expectations and plans for the future may be erroneous. This emphasis on mindfulness and disciplined awareness makes the reader aware that although the tools and strategies presented by the authors may seem simple, to be effective they must be used by individuals who have worked diligently to understand their organization, its employees, and the organization's environment.
Managing the Unexpected is a welcome book for those of us who have always marveled at the success of our organizations in delivering quality goods and services in chaotic environments. It is not a quick fix that will send you to organizational nirvana with mindless platitudes. No, it is more like an organizational Leatherman that you keep on your belt at all times with the understanding that successful complex organizations are always needing to be fine tuned with a wide variety of skills, tools, and awareness.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Commitment To Resilience; Deference To Expertise 25 Mar. 2006
By Robert I. Hedges - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Karl Weick and Kathleen Sutcliffe have written an eloquent and practical guide to reliability and safety that emphasizes the managerial point of view, but is also equally helpful to researchers or safety professionals. Perhaps the greatest thing the authors are able to accomplish in this book is in emphasizing the conscious mindfulness required in critical situations, and in distinguishing in observable and real-world ways the specific components of mindfulness as seen in safety-conscious High Reliability Organizations (HROs).

The authors distill the essence of reliability (and safety) into five essential qualities: preoccupation with failure, reluctance to simplify, sensitivity to operations, commitment to resilience, and deference to expertise. As a long time safety professional (with experience largely in the aviation and chemical processing industries) I couldn't agree more with the authors after reading the text associated with these five qualities. I have found that especially in larger organizations that deference to expertise is perhaps the most difficult of the five traits to be accepted in the workplace, as generally rank or seniority tend to be deferred to, particularly in a crisis. The airline industry has come a long way with the different iterations of Crew Resource Management (CRM), and of all (often unstated) the reasons that CRM has succeeded I think that deference to expertise is the single most important.

I like the concept of realistic audits the authors promote, and particularly enjoyed the insight regarding the vulnerability of Singapore to Japanese attack as it came to be understood by Winston Churchill, who had a penchant for realistic self-appraisal, to wit: "I ought to have known. My advisors ought to have known and I ought to have been told, and I ought to have asked." The point is that we frequently believe what we want to believe, not because we are intellectually dishonest, but because of the human tendency to seek out information that confirms our views, and not to seek out disconfirming information. A mark of a truly reliable and safe organization (examples include airline operations, nuclear power plants, aircraft carriers, etc.) is seeking out information which points toward problem areas, rather than viewing successes as being demonstrative of the quality of institutional planning and procedures. The example concerning the Moura mine disaster on p.135 makes the point quite eloquently: "HROs assume that the system is endangered until there is conclusive proof that it is not." There could be no better single- sentence summary of the book.

There are many more interesting observations in the book, the most enlightening of which can be found in chapter five. I particularly enjoyed the discussion of a "learning culture" beginning on p. 136, and find that one of their most salient observations is also one of mine from years of industry experience, that being the concept of "learned helplessness." When people attempt to bring safety issues to the fore but are quickly dismissed, they learn to keep to themselves. This is a major problem, especially in large organizations, and the advice proffered by the authors is both sound and cogent. I was absolutely delighted to see the long-overdue examination (p.140) of "de minimus error" in which context is examined as it relates to seemingly unconnected small events. In this situation, people frequently seek out separate, small reasons for each deviation, ignoring the accumulating evidence that there is actually one large problem responsible for all the disparate events. Though the authors did not note it as an example, people familiar with the Apollo 13 accident will no doubt realize how the controllers had to fight off this kind of error willfully. (I think that Apollo-era NASA was an excellent example of an HRO.)

There are many more issues that Weick and Sutcliffe bring to the forefront in this book, from intelligent rule-making, to flexibility of response. My advice to any manager or safety professional is to put this book at the top of your reading list. It is easy to read, easy to digest, comprehensive in scope, yet universally applicable across industries. Even if you are not involved in an industry like nuclear power or aviation where large issues of life and death are literally in your domain, this is still mandatory reading. Any business can learn for the examples cited (which range from a merger-induced railroad meltdown at the "bad" end of the reliability scale, to nuclear-powered aircraft carrier operations at the "good" end of the reliability scale.)

I highly recommend this book to managers, safety professionals, researchers, and anyone else interested in becoming more informed about reliability and organizational safety.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Outstanding guide to achieving high reliability 17 Nov. 2005
By Daniel R. Wilson - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is about learning to "notice the unexpected in the making and halt its development." In other words, it shows the reader how to detect surprises while they are new, small, and insignificant and before they become five-alarm fires. The book shows the reader how to create what the authors call a high-reliability organization that can deal effectively with surprises. An organization does this by being "mindful," which is to say alert, resilient, and flexible. What could be more perfect for today's executives?

Weick and Sutcliffe also provide clear guidance on how to implement their advice, but the reader should be warned that doing so is tough. Most bosses don't want to be bothered with a) "insignificant" developments b) news about near misses c) inquiry into gray areas that cannot be resolved quickly and cleanly, and d) reflections on efforts that failed or nearly failed. Few organizations truly defer to expertise rather than to rank. Few bosses devote time to exploring isolated events that may have subtle relationships connecting them. All of these cultural characteristics resist the implementation of mindfulness.

This book is helpful in part because the authors articulate complicated ideas in a clear and condensed way. They give us words and phrases that we can actually use at work. It is also useful because the book draws on real life examples of mindful organizations and of others that paid the price for not being mindful. I count this book among the top dozen or so business and management books I have read over the years, and I have read many of them. It is outstanding.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A solid introductory text 7 Jan. 2006
By John McGuirl - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Drs Weick and Sutcliffe provide a very readable presentation of a complex subject. Geared towards the business audience (but also a good introduction for researchers), it provides a clear outline of the underlying issues in managing complex organizations as well as concrete methods for transforming your organization into one capable of dealing with uncertainty.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars How to understand the bad reviews of this book 9 Jan. 2012
By Amazon Customer - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
After having just read this book then signing on to see the reviews, I was surprised to see the intensity of the three negative, "outlier" reviews. I am an old, 4-year post-doc with over 30 years experience as a practitioner of management in numerous context; small business owner, entrepreneur, angel investor, executive in medium-sized businesses, and even as an infantry commander in Vietnam. The negative reviews are well-written and rational. So why the difference in the intensity of difference in reviews?

After some thought and research it dawned on me that the answer may be context, Weick's focus at the time of writing on high reliability organizations (HROs). Weick naturally attempts to push his five principles too far into contexts that are more into business realms that the negative reviewers may be envisioning. A flower shop, a social organization, an industrial firm producing low-value retail product would not fit the HRO mode, nor would their culture demand "mindfulness". Mindfulness might be beneficial to these organization in small portions, but not necessary or sufficient and perhaps counter-productive to success.

Arthur Fiedler, the originator of "contingency theory" (1970s)hypothesized that management style (authoritarian vs. participatory) was dependent upon task context. In a meta-analysis of 24 experimental studies testing contingency theory, Peters (1985) found consistent evidence of the validity of the theory. My personal experience also aligns with Fiedler's theory and I believe that mindfulness may be a dimension of management style.

However, my strongest support for Weick comes from his language of practicality after allowing for his excessive enthusiasm. In his final chapter, Weick offer practical advise to managers, most of which is sound in any context; create awareness.., cultivate humility, speak-up.., etc. It would be hard to argue against an academic espousing such actions.
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