When organizations fail

From a book review by Karl Weick in a recent ASQ:

But what’s missing are cases that show how learning is sustained during crises and how lessons learned after a crisis actually make a difference later. The problem with enumerating breakdowns is that it’s not obvious what drives them (e.g., stress, sensemaking, habit, perception, overload, decision making), nor is it obvious that breakdowns in learning trump everything else. Resilience is tested in novel environments, as the author says. And learning before and during novel events can promote adaptation in the face of novelty. The solutions by which people can build organizational learning seem to boil down to the creation of independent “Red Teams” that scrutinize previous breakdowns, try to cut through denials, and expose finer details of what really happened and how to prevent a recurrence. Such efforts can promote learning, but variations of this approach, in the form of after-action reviews, have been used for some time, and the associated learning can be situation-specific.

We ignore learning in organizations to our peril – especially because so many public organizations are “knowledge organizations” (full of expert professionals), and also because they frequently fail.

We tend to over-analyze the successes (which are rare) and under-analyze failures.