What disasters have to teach us about organization

An interesting piece in Tuesday’s NY Times on a researcher who studies disasters to better understand people and organizations:

A Sociologist With an Advanced Degree in Calamity. Kathleen Tierney, a disaster researcher, says that catastrophes change the way people experience time. By By CLAUDIA DREIFUS. [The New York Times > Science]

There’s lots of good stuff here, but this quote in particular caught my eye:

one of the things you see in a crisis is devolution of authority to the lower levels of organizations, and that happens, in part, because there are so many decisions to be made. Also, effective decision making has to be responsive to what is happening at a given location. The centralized commander is too far away for that. You generally see people taking responsibility themselves.

One organizational advantage in a disaster or crisis is that centralized commanders don’t generally have the time to get annoyed when subordinates decide to take responsibility for themselves.

My own sense is that more of our organizational life is coming to resemble crises in one form or another and that we need to incorporate that reality into our ways of working. Two authors come to mind immediately. The first is Peter Vaill who introduced me to the notion of “permanent whitewater” as a metaphor for today’s organizational world. I’d recommend both Learning As a Way of Being : Strategies for Survival in a World of Permanent White Water and Managing As a Performing Art : New Ideas for a World of Chaotic Change. [Halley, this is the reference I meant today, not Peter Block, although he’s worth reading too]. The second is Gary Klein’s Sources of Power : How People Make Decisions. Klein’s work shows how much real decision making relies on “gut instinct” informed by experience with lots of similar chaotic situations.