Five Habits of Highly Reliable Organizations

It is a world after Enron. After the Global Crossing and K-Mart bankruptcies. After accusations of improprieties on Wall Street and irregularities at some of the nation's most storied professional-services firms.

It is a time when businesspeople ask, "Who can we rely on?" - and they are justified.

The answer comes from an unexpected source: Karl E. Weick, the smartest business thinker you have never heard of. A private, academic noncelebrity who labors at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, Weick is revered by such public celebrities as Jim Collins and Tom Peters. His work - notably, the opaque but groundbreaking 1969 book, The Social Psychology of Organizing - is among the most cited in the sphere of organizational theory.

In the wake of today's business turbulence and, more recently, just plain bad business, Weick's analysis of Highly Reliable Organizations (HROs) offers important lessons. His message: The best way for any company and its people to respond to unpredictable challenges is by building an effective organization that expertly spots the unexpected when it crops up and then quickly adapts to meet the changed environment. In a series of interviews, Weick revealed the five habits of highly reliable organizations.

1. Don't be tricked by your success.

 HROs do not gloat over their successes. In fact, just the opposite: They are preoccupied with their failures. They are incredibly sensitive to their own lapses and errors, which serve as windows to their system's vulnerability. They pick up on small deviations. In addition, they react early and quickly to anything that does not fit with their expectations.

2. Defer to your experts on the front line.

 There are so many deviations out there, so much dissonance. How do we know what is really worth paying attention to? The answer: Listen to your experts - the people on the front line.

3. Let the unexpected circumstances provide your solution.

 I have written about the Mann Gulch fire that killed 13 smoke jumpers in 19. In all, it was a tragic organizational failure. But what was amazing was the reaction of the foreman, Wagner Dodge, when the fire was nearly on top of his men. On the spot, he invented the escape fire - a small fire that would consume all of the brush around him and his team, leaving an area where the larger fire could not burn.

4. Embrace complexity.

 Business is complex, in large part because it is unknowable and unpredictable. In the face of all of this complexity, HROs are reluctant to accept simplification. They understand that it takes complexity to sense complexity.

5. Anticipate -- but also anticipate your limits.

 We try to anticipate as much as we possibly can, but we cannot anticipate everything. There is such a premium on planning, on budgeting, on making the numbers. In the face of all that, the notion of resilience has an affirming quality: You do not have to get it all right at first.

This article is used by permission from Dr. John C. Maxwell's free monthly e-newsletter 'Leadership Wired' available at