Managing the Unexpected

Assuring High Performance in an Age of Complexity

Book by Karl E. Weick and Kathleen M. Sutcliffe
Review by Michael J. Novak for Office of Research, IRS

“By some estimates, executives and managers spend nearly half their time in activities related to planning: developing an organizational vision; translating that vision into a strategic plan; communicating the plan; deploying the plan via subordinate – e.g., operational, business, financial, human capital, and individual performance – plans, monitoring progress of plans; initiating corrective action when plans go off track; articulating reasons why the plans failed to achieve desired outcomes; and rewarding individuals and teams for their parts in successful execution of the plans.

But why plan? In today’s fast-paced, highly complex transformational environment, it could be argued that planning is obsolete. Because the environment is so chaotic – because the future is therefore so fraught with uncertainty – it is impossible to predict the future. And that is why some organizations have given up on planning: They see it as a waste of precious time that could be used reacting to unpredicted (unpredictable?) events.

That is the impression one might get from a first reading of the book under consideration. Weick and Sutcliffe tell us, among other things, that planning might not only be obsolete; it might be dysfunctional. Picture this: An organization has strategic plans, operational plans, annual business plans, and contingency plans – all expertly crafted, deployed, and executed – yet a series of unexpected events (Murphy’s Law in action) derail the plans and cause disaster. Weick and Sutcliffe argue that the mere fact of such extensive planning tends to detract executives’ and managers’ attention away from those aberrations that fall outside the plans. Organizational leaders may assume that these pesky little anomalies are simply random occurrences when, in fact, they are part of a larger, more insidious pattern coming into play – one that is not recognized until the damage is done.” Read more>