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Managing the unexpected

Jul 17th

High Reliability Organisations focus on 2 critical factors to routinely manage the unexpected, so we take a closer look at both. This issue also includes: surviving the silly season; 6 steps to get the most out of coaching; and making development more engaging.

Editor’s view

Managing the unexpected

Recent research by the University of Michigan studied how High Reliability Organisations routinely manage the unexpected to avoid catastrophe. We look into the 2 critical factors they focus on.

“Imagine that it’s a busy day and you shrink Heathrow airport to only one runway and one ramp and one gate. Make planes take off and land at the same time, at half the present time interval, rock the runway from side to side, and require that everyone who leaves in the morning returns the same day. Then turn off the radar to avoid detection, impose strict controls on the radios, fuel the aircraft in place with their engines running, put an enemy in the air, and scatter live bombs and rockets around. Now wet the whole thing down with sea water and oil, and man it with twenty year olds. Oh, and by the way, try not to kill anyone.”

That’s how one navy veteran describes life on an aircraft carrier.

Karl Weik and Kathleen Sutcliffe of the University of Michigan Business School have studied organisations like this which manage the unexpected every day so that they routinely avoid catastrophes. They call them High Reliability Organisations (HROs).

Reflecting on recent big bank failures, and even on work we are doing with the NHS on eliminating Healthcare Associated Infections (eg MRSA), it seems to us that leaders in business and the public sector can learn much from studying the way in which HROs organise themselves to maintain structure and function in uncertainty where the potential for error and disaster can lead to catastrophe.

Weik and Sutcliffe discovered that HROs focus on anticipation and containment.


  • Preoccupation with failure: To avoid failure leaders must look for it and be sensitive to early signs of failure.
  • Reluctance to simplify: Leaders never allow themselves to be lulled into a false sense of security by seemingly favourable data.
  • Sensitivity to operations: Leaders remain connected to the front line.


  • Commitment to resilience: The organisation must maintain function during high demand events. It does this by absorbing strain and preserving function despite adversity, maintaining the ability to return to service from untoward events, and learning from previous episodes.

In the news

Surviving the silly season

Love it or dread it, spending Christmas with the family is part and parcel of the season. So how can you avoid falling into the same family dynamic every year? where everyone has a part to play…and it’s not always a comfortable one.

What techniques can you use to avoid falling into the family dynamic trap? By that I mean, for the first few hours/days everything’s fine with parents and siblings, your identity is intact, but soon after, somehow, you’re all playing the same parts you always played.

Perhaps you feel intimidated by your older brother, oddly belittled by your younger sister, or ignored by your parents.

This year how about enjoying your Christmas without the family dynamics mess?

  • Make up a script for the scenarios that scare you most, and stick to it if you get confused. Pick one sentence, and have it ready. Whenever you get the typical behaviour, use the sentence. Even if you have to say it 20 times. Pretend you are at a press conference and your lawyer has told you to follow one script and not to veer off of it. If they start to try and get a rise out of you with something they say, your reply is simply “OK”, said in a very plain, slightly disinterested tone. It baffles the hell out of them and is very hard to argue with.
  • Take some time for yourself during your visit. Even a walk can help clear the air.
  • We fall into our old roles when we have nothing else to do but fall into them. If you can do something (alone or with siblings) that is new or out of the ordinary, you won’t have as much chance to revert to when you were a teenager.
  • The real trick is to maintain that awareness in the moment (easier said than done). When you catch a sibling falling into one of those stereotypical roles you’d prefer to avoid, react with your head instead of your gut (again, easier said than done) and say something like “you know, now that we’re adults, I’d really like to get past the way we related to each other as kids, and have a grown-up friendship with you”
  • Self escalating mutually reinforced feedback loops of undesirable behaviour leave everyone feeling bad.

To interrupt the cycle, decide what it is that you DO want, and respond not to the behaviour of the other, but the content of what they talk about. A non-sequitor at the right moment can interrupt a bad cycle, and you can even prepare an amusing or entertaining one beforehand. Focus not on what it is you don’t like, but rather what you want from the situation (and, also, what they want, which may be something other than “make you feel like c**p”).

Oh – and you can use the same techniques if you find your leadership team at work has fallen into repeated patterns of behaviour too!

Tip of the month

6 steps to get the most out of coaching

Meeting regularly with your executive coach can really help overcome the challenges you face in your job. But to get the maximum value from your time together, try these 6 essential steps.

Just by having a coach and chatting on a regular basis, you will get plenty of value – you don’t have to work hard at it. This is because the synergy that occurs as a result of the coach – client relationship is what makes the biggest difference to any well-motivated client.

If you do want to maximize the value of the coaching relationship, introduce these 6 steps to your next session:

  1. Focus on how you feel and want to feel, not just on what you want to produce.
    Don’t forget the intangibles, such as feeling happier, more peaceful and more inspired.
  2. Talk about what matters most to you.
    You may talk about anything you want. This includes your goals, your life, your needs, what you want to improve, what’s bothering you, an idea you have, a problem you are dealing with, even stuff that may not appear to be all that ‘useful’ to talk about.
  3. Sensitise yourself so that you see and experience things earlier than before.
    Reduce whatever is clouding your ability to see or numbing your ability to sense. The more you can feel, the faster you can respond to events and opportunities. You can help by reducing or eliminating alcohol, television, adrenaline, stress and caffeine.
  4. Feel coached during the 10,000 minutes of your week not just the 30 minutes of your session.
    There are 10,080 minutes in a 7-day week. What you and your coach talk about during your sessions will resonate with you during your week, and some of the seeds or ideas that have been discussed will grow between sessions.
  5. Reduce the drain in your life. Coaching works because it focuses you in two areas. First, you’ll be helped to stretch yourself further, take more actions than you would on your own. At the same time, you will also be identifying and reducing things that drain you, such as tolerations, stressful situations, difficult relationships, pressured environments and recurring problems.
  6. Design and strengthen your personal and business environments.

Use part of your coaching time to design the perfect environment in which to live and work. Where you live and how you live are key to your success. Who you spend time with and are inspired by can make the difference between success and failure. Be willing to invest some time – and money – in improving your environment so that you feel supported to be your best.

Your questions answered

I know staff development is important for my business, but my staff work on shifts, and are very busy – we get poor attendance at development events. What can I do?

It’s never easy to engage staff under these circumstances. Think about short learning experiences which have big impact. For example, how about a 15 minute playlet using actors?

Decide on the one or two key messages you want to get across and keep it simple. The actors will make it memorable – they are great at drawing the audience into the action.

Stage the play like street theatre – take the action to the workplace and gather staff together.
Follow up with a drop-in session for each member of staff – they talk to a coach for 20 minutes at a suitable break time about what they took from the experience and what they might do differently as a result.

Finish off with a wrap-up session for the shift supervisor where the coaches feed back overall themes from the individual conversations, and work with the supervisor to identify team actions.

This article is filed under: employee motivation, , executive coaching, leadership, organisation, organisation design, people

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