Is Uncertainty the “Good Stuff” in Your Organization?

by Evelyn Clark

Change is constant, and yet, many organizations–like many people– constantly resist it–to their detriment. In some organizations, though, uncertainty is the “good stuff.” According to Karl E. Weick, an organizational psychologist and academic based at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, these organizations fall into the category of “highly reliable.”

“The smartest business thinker you’ve never heard of,” according to “Fast Company Magazine” Weick is “revered by such public celebrities as Jim Collins and Tom Peters” and is noted in organizational theory circles for his groundbreaking 1969 book, The Social Psychology of Organizing.

In his newest book, Managing the Unexpected: Assuring High Performance in an Age of Complexity ( Jossey-Bass, 2001 ), Weick and co-author Kathleen Sutcliffe, a colleague at the University of Michigan, define “high-reliability organizations” — which include operations such as aircraft-carrier and nuclear-power-plant crews–as having “two essential characteristics: They constantly confront the unexpected and operate with remarkable consistency and effectiveness.

Their conclusion, which should be of interest to anyone concerned about and/or affected by the continuing chaos in the business community, is that “the best way for any company — and its people — to respond to unpredictable challenges is (to build) an effective organization that expertly spots the unexpected when it crops up and then quickly adapts to meet the changed environment. In a series of interviews with “Fast Company,” Weick revealed the five habits of highly reliable organizations.

  • Don’t be tricked by your success.
  • Defer to your experts on the front line.
  • Let the unexpected circumstances provide your solution.
  • Embrace complexity.
  • Anticipate — but also anticipate your limits.

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Evelyn Clark, The Corporate Storyteller, is president of Clark & Company, a marketing communication firm in the Seattle area. A public relations practitioner with more than 20 years experience, she was accredited by the Public Relations Society of America in 1986. Her firm’s services include facilitation of retreats and communication workshops, marketing and communication management, media relations strategy development, and media training. All content © Clark & Company 1993-111 (unless otherwise indicated). All rights reserved.