Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Too Much of a Good Thing

The wildland fire service has been deemed by many a high reliability organization (HRO). For those less familiar with HROs or those wanting to share the information with new members of the organization has a great article called "Characteristics of the High Reliability Organization - How Does Your Organization Measure Up?"

Karl Weick and Kathleen Sutcliffe suggest that high reliability organizations (HROs) share the following characteristics:

  • Preoccupation with failure
  • Reluctance to over simplify
  • Sensitivity to operations
  • Deference to expertise
  • Commitment to resilience

"Deference to expertise is the focus of this blog with information taken from Managing the Unexpected by Weick and Sutcliffe as cited in a Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center's HRO Stories article titled "Morning Briefings: Boring or Effective? How Our Conversations at Briefings Can Reinforce Deference to Expertise."

“Deference to expertise pushes decision-making to the field level, migrating decisions both up and down, reducing the consequences of errors in decision-making. Decisions migrate around HROs in search of a person who has specific knowledge of the event. Deference to expertise is as much collective as it is individual.”

“Expertise is relational. It is an assemblage of knowledge, experience, learning and intuitions that is seldom embodied in a single individual. And if expertise appears to be confined to a single individual, that expertise is evoked and becomes meaningful only when a second person requests it, defers to it, modifies it or rejects it.” They also write, “Expertise resides as much in
relationships as in individuals, meaning that interrelationships, interactions, conversations and networks embody it.”

A Word of Caution

Ron Ashkenas wrote an article called "The Dangers of Deference" for the HBR Blog Network. Although this article talks about "deference to authority" where subordinates defer to hierarchical authority. I found the word of caution that Ashkenas provides about overly deferential cultures useful. Ashkenas says, "There's nothing wrong with a certain amount of deference in organizations. But when a culture becomes overly deferential, it can lead to frustration, resentment, and bad decisions."


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