Seeing the opportunity in crisis: Part 1 – High Reliability Organisations (HROs)

Impossible to it's possible concept with businessman and wooden blocks How the COVID-19 outbreak could make your organisation more reliable.

In current times of uncertainty and volatility, it is easy to become overly focused on the negative, however, researchers have found that high-reliability organisations (HROs) are those that are able to harness opportunity in challenging times (Christianson, Sutcliffe, Miller and Iwashyna, 2011). HROs are those that are able to avoid severe failure while operating in an environment where failure is perceived as more likely and even expected because of heightened risk or complexity of operations (Sutcliffe, 2011).

This level of organisational resilience comes from leaders at all levels having a system-wide perspective and being willing to plan for catastrophic and unexpected events, regardless of how unlikely they appear to be on a day-to-day basis.

HROs operate on a set of organizing principles that enable them to direct attention to emergent problems and mobilise both people and resources to address problems as they arise. In a seemingly counterintuitive manner, HROs spend time examining ‘failures’ and anomalies, not with a focus on what went wrong, but to learn from a reflexive standpoint in examining ‘how could we do better?’. In this way, employees develop what Carol Dweck (2017) refers to as ‘growth mindset’, and collectively contribute to what Peter Senge (1990) calls a ‘learning organisation’. “Learning organizations develop as a result of the pressures facing modern organizations; this enables them to remain competitive in the business environment” (O’Keeffe, 2002, p. 130).

The current pressure of rapidly adapting to the need for as many workers as possible to work from home (or telework) during the COVID-19 pandemic, offers many organisations, particularly those whose dominant workforce consists of knowledge workers, the opportunity to reorganise around the principles that guide successful operations in HROs.

Five unique attributes of HRO’s

HROs are characterised by five unique attributes that facilitate problem identification, problem and crisis management, and decision-making in uncertain times:

  1. HROs seek to identify small problems as early as possible and ‘course correct’ before the issue can become a ‘big problem’. As an example in response to the COVID-19 situation, this might suggest organisations ask a percentage of their workforce to telework (remote work or work from home) as soon as possible and remain in contact with these workers to identify emerging issues with telework prior to the entire workforce potentially needing to be sent home.
  2. HROs do NOT reduce complex problems to overly simplistic models and interpretations. It is important to embrace complexity and the uncertainty it brings, this is particularly important during a crisis to avoid missing potentially relevant problems elsewhere in a complex system. A pertinent example may be ensuring that an entire value chain has been examined with regard to contingency planning. Consideration should be given to wide-ranging possibilities including but not limited to: flow-on effects from third party shutdowns; restrictions or shortages of goods, supplies or other necessary resources due to border controls or lockdowns; reduced connectivity due to increased demands on broadband networks, etc.
  3. HROs face reality head-on, they do not interpret the situation from a ‘she’ll be right mate’ perspective but seek to understand the true nature of what is actually happening. This involves collecting evidence from multiple sources and not relying solely on one source of information for decision-making. Evidence, in this context, includes feedback from multiple stakeholders, the best available research evidence, expert opinion, and experienced practitioner judgment and any relevant business data. HROs seek out their own sources of evidence and do not assume any particular source represents the ‘truth’ or infallible perspective. With regard to the COVID-19 outbreak ensure your organisation is thinking about integrating multiple perspectives on considerations such as: employees working from home; meeting customer demands during the crisis; and the sustainability of your current operating model in uncertain times.
  4. HROs ‘drill’ disaster by discussing worst-case scenarios and developing response plans. While not all crises can be predicted and avoided, HROs understand this and build the capability to recover quickly from unforeseen adversity by planning for the worst-case scenario. For organisations struggling with decision making in the face of the COVID-19 outbreak, this is an essential ‘short-cut’ to a favourable outcome; assume the worst (whatever that looks like for your organisation), prepare for it, then be grateful if it doesn’t come to fruition! And, if the worst does happen, you’re ready for it.
  5. HROs recognize where true ‘expertise’ lies and include those closest to the problem in planning and decision-making. This might mean inviting customer-service or other ‘front-line’ workers to the decision-making table. During periods of high uncertainty and volatility HROs have their own ‘state of emergency’ procedures which allow those most able to respond to a problem quickly to do so without relying on inefficient or untimely chains of command (which may work very well during status quo).

High reliability is not a state that an organization can ever fully achieve (i.e. it is not something that can be ticked off the proverbial ‘to do list’). Organizational reliability and resilience are contingent on an ongoing practice aligned with the ideas outlined above and a ‘can do’ attitude toward uncertainty and volatility (or the VUCA environment more broadly). Achieving high reliability involves a dynamic set of properties, activities, and responses and a willingness to see far beyond the comfort and safety of ‘business as usual’.

If you would like to learn more, see Weick and Sutcliffe’s (2015) classic book Managing the Unexpected: Sustained Performance in a Complex World (first published 2001).

Read part 2 of this series: Seeing the opportunity in crisis: Part 2 – Teleworking (Working From Home)

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Christianson, M. K., Sutcliffe, K. M., Miller, M. A., & Iwashyna, T. J. (2011). Becoming a high reliability organization. Critical care, 15(6), 314.

Dweck, C. (2017). Mindset-updated edition: Changing the way you think to fulfill your potential. Hachette UK.

O’Keeffe, T. 2002. Organizational Learning: a new perspective. Journal of European Industrial Training, 26 (2), pp. 130-141.

Senge, P. M. (1990). The art and practice of the learning organization. The new paradigm in business: Emerging strategies for leadership and organizational change, 126-138.

Sutcliffe, K. M. (2011). High reliability organizations (HROs). Best Practice & Research Clinical Anaesthesiology, 25(2), 133-144.

Weick, K. E., & Sutcliffe, K. M. (2011). Managing the unexpected: Resilient performance in an age of uncertainty (Vol. 8). John Wiley & Sons.

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Dr Shari Read is an award-winning educator with a focus on teaching skills for our digital future. As a clinically trained social psychologist and design enthusiast, Shari emphasises human-centred approaches to leadership, management and new ways of working. Her research and teaching in the area of transformation and change management emphasise the capabilities required to lead effectively through uncertainty and complexity.

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