Over the previous week the Australian Federal Government has gone from banning 9,000 Australians from returning from India, because of the COVID-19 situation there, to planning for repatriation flights from India (beginning in mid-May). They have gone from an entirely inappropriate response to a crisis to a barely acceptable response as a consequence of social and media pressure. There has been a large amount of discussion about this issue in the Australian media, and most of what needs to be said about the nature and perspective of our current Federal Government has been discussed. I have no desire to add to this political debate, but, instead, wish to elucidate why some professionals and organisations do their work very well in a crisis, while others fail to live up to practical standards or social expectations.

The best perspective from which to understand how some organisations successfully deal with crises is the literature on High Reliability Organisations (HROs). While most organisations function within environments where there is a low-probability of a high-consequence crisis, which the organisation normally responds to badly when the crisis finally happens, HROs work in high-probability/high-consequence environments, in which they know circumstances can go horribly wrong at any moment if they don’t keep managing every variable. HROs tend to exist in the areas of emergency medicine, fire and rescue, aviation, defence, and nuclear power, but just being in the area doesn’t mean that an organisation will become High Reliability.

Weick and Sutcliffe undertook the seminal research into HROs, with an entire area of study having now developed out of their work. According to their research, HROs have five common characteristics: they are pre-occupied with failure, they are reluctant to simplify, they are sensitive to operations, they are committed to resilience, and they show deference to expertise.

I have now spent seven years teaching people about HROs, and training them to incorporate aspects of HRO behaviour and doctrine into their daily organisational practices, and I am convinced that a cultural shift toward a heightened acceptance of risk has to come before better crisis response can be achieved.

While a HRO knows that catastrophic failure is only a matter of one moment of inattention away, and that failure is an inevitable part of doing complex and dangerous things, they stay committed to holding failure at bey for another day. In contrast, most other organisations are pre-occupied with success, and, as a consequence, don’t respond to risks early enough to improve long-term outcomes. Their desperate desire to maintain a perfect record means that they would rather reflect on previous successes than acknowledge and act on the early signs of risks.

HROs tend not to create simple models or plans, because they know that every variable can impact on an outcome. Sadly, most other organisations rely on simplification to save money and time, and to ensure that they can get all of the decision makers on the same page, despite their lack of cohesive technical understanding and experience. Reification and abstraction are very common in organisations where education and data are in abundance, and where experience and intuition don’t fit the strategic plan or budget posture.

HROs function within and through their actual experience, even when it directly contradicts their strategies and earlier assumptions. Ideology and abstract doctrine are viewed with suspicion in HROs, with preference given to training and incremental iteration. Meanwhile, too many other organisations limit themselves to ideology and historical example, so they don’t have to react quickly and creatively to the unfamiliar and uncomfortable present.

HROs implement changes as quickly as is required to keep failure at bay. They see resilience as a normal part of effective operations, rather than as a policy to progress uncomfortable change. Resilience has become the buzz-word of our era, even though what HROs do is really antifragility. HROs get better day by day, rather than just trying to survive the day. Most other organisations struggle to be resilient, let alone to be antifragile.

Experts in a HRO often have minimal power and are not in senior management positions. Their expertise comes from their experience on the front-line, and experience is valued more highly than position. Most organisations see this as a threat to power and position, and filter lessons from expertise up through the hierarchy to a level where a decision can be made, but where the insight has been lost.

Most organisations fail to successfully deal with crises because they are not sufficiently open to experience, willing to change, willing to embrace risk, and they are not willing to recognise the limits of hierarchical power and position. It is unfortunate that so many organisations fail so regularly, but it is not really surprising when you realise how few HROs there actually are.

Too many organisations pretend that they exist in a low-probability/low-consequence world, so that they can continue to do the same thing and maintain their apparent record of success. If COVID-19 has shown us anything, it is that low-probability/low consequence is a myth perpetuated by people who don’t wish to risk their privileged positions at the top of organisations, and that everyone should learn something about how to function well in a high-probability/high-consequence world. Crises are only ever just around the corner, and we would do so much better at dealing with them if entire societies held themselves and their organisations to High Reliability standards.

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