Managing the Unexpected

Ed: Ok, you’ve been asking for it – a practical workplace application of Safety and Risk Psychology

Managing the Unexpected

clip_image002Karl Weick and Kathleen Sutcliffe published Managing the Unexpected in 2001 and brought many of the principles of the social psychology of organizing into the risk and safety world. This book should be at the top for reading for any risk and safety person, that’s if they read more than regulations. I remember reading Managing the Unexpected at the time and being liberated by the ideas of ‘organizational sensemaking’ and ‘collective mindfulness’. One thing for sure, it’s not the things we see that hurt us but rather the activities we are blind to that bite us, how can one manage the unexpected? This is why the study of perception and motivation ought to be fundamental study for any person in risk and safety.

I worked for a number of years with my brothers as a ceramic tiler, one is still tiling and the other is retired. We mostly worked large commercial projects and high rise but more recently my younger brother has been doing residential work. My younger brother was doing some work this week and sent me these photos. He was doing a renovation of a house built in the 1970s and was surprised by what he found indeed, it was fortunate that he practiced collective mindfulness or he could have been dead.



Weick and Sutcliffe describe the key principles for managing the unexpected as:

1. Preoccupation with failure

2. Reluctance to simplify interpretations

3. Sensitivity to operations

4. Commitment to resilience and

5. Deference to expertise.

Let’s briefly look at each one:

1. Being preoccupied with failure is not a pessimistic activity but, as I teach in my training, having a disposition of ‘entertaining doubt’. The key to this skill is having a balance between naïve realism and fatalism. As with all Weick’s principles, being mindful of trade offs and by products is foundational for managing the unexpected.

2. I often read in the pages of Linkedin and in some responses to this blog, the glorification of simplicity. Weick makes it very clear, there is no value in simplicity or simplistic thinking indeed, we should be reluctant to simplify. This doesn’t mean we have to over complicate things but naïve confidence in black and white thinking doesn’t serve the nature of safety well. Safety and risk are a ‘wicked problem’. The most dangerous trend in safety in our current time is the dumbing down of safety.

3. Sensitivity to operations means getting ‘on the floor’, observing and conversing with people, and avoidance of guessing and assumptions. This means having a focus on the past, what Weick calls ‘retrospect’. Do your homework and focus on the front line.

4. Resilience is the foundation for learning and maturation. Being committed to resilience means viewing activity through the lens of learning rather than the lens of prediction and punishment. It is from a learning framework that one can imagine trajectories and possibilities.

5. Deference to expertise is making sure that hierarchy and social arrangements don’t dictate who directs the job. This ensures that rank and status don’t command any more airtime than those who know the job. So, safety people who waltz in and tell others how to be safe, yet don’t know the job, are dangerous.

These five principles are what Weick and Sutcliffe state are essential for a High Reliability Organisation.

So, this is how my brother worked. He always does his homework, background on the house etc, and with his experience (knowing about construction in the 1970s) and some heuristics, he always ‘entertains doubt’. He never assumes that jobs are simple and straight forward, this is naivety. He didn’t know there was a power point or live power behind the shower wall but turned off the power anyway. He then began his removal of sheeting in small amounts from the corner and looked for cues, he found them. Once he found indicators of dodgy work he called the electrician and informed the owner/investor. The rest is history.

This is a practical example of how the 5 principles of collective mindfulness can help manage the unexpected.

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long

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Dr Rob Long
PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MRMIA Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.

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