Monday, March 23, 2015

Error and Blame, part 1

[For those who want the background, it begins with this post back in December.
I've linked all the relevant posts together in a chain.]

Karl Weick's work on wildland firefighters—the Mann Gulch disaster in particular—has had an enormous influence on sensemaking scholarship. Sensemaking scholarship, in turn, has had an enormous influence on both organisation theory and organisational practice. One of the things I worry about, therefore, is whether Weick's empirical analyses are right, i.e., whether our theorising about sensemaking and our recommendations for practice have a reliable basis. While it is sometimes suggested that Weick isn't really making empirical claims, that he is only trying to "get people to think", it is important to keep in mind that his ability to get people thinking is grounded in their believing his stories, at least for the sake of argument. As Barbara Czarniawska has suggested, we must "suspend disbelief" when reading him—we have to "trust" him. And many people do "think differently" after reading Weick. My question is whether that's a good thing.

Here's one reason I don't trust Weick's work on Mann Gulch. Weick has always argued that one of the reasons that the thirteen men died in that disaster was that they held a "stubborn belief" that they would have the fire out by the next morning. In his 1996 EAQ piece he puts it as follows:

The person responsible for spotting landing zones remarked that the jumpers would have the fire under control by 10:00 the next morning, which led the firefighters to call this a 10:00 fire. Later in the day, clues, such as increasing flame size, more erratic swirling of flames, and louder noise, were ignored because they did not fit the expectation that the fire would be out within hours. (569)

This simply doesn't square with the facts we find in Weick's source. (Keep in mind that at the time of writing, Weick only knew as much about the Mann Gulch disaster as he had learned from Norman Maclean's book Young Men and Fire, which we can read for ourselves.) Maclean tells us that at the time of the Mann Gulch fire, "Smokejumpers were still so young that they referred to all fires they jumped on as 'ten o'clock fires'" (page 19, my emphasis); that is, this was not an erroneous assessment of an actual fire, but the underlying attitude of the firefighters. Indeed, it turns out that this wasn't just a question of inexperience; in the 1930s the US Forest Service instituted what is known as "the 10:00 a.m. policy" (see Donovan, Rideout and Omi 1999, page 99). I haven't been able to find a place in Maclean's account where the firefighters "ignore clues" about the fire, and it's pretty much agreed that the fire "turned to murder", tragically, at the very moment when the firefighters couldn't see it. It wasn't the stubbornness of their beliefs that got in the way but the topography of the land. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, reading Maclean, we find out that the firefighters had abandoned their belief that they would have the fire out by morning after an hour in the Gulch*, as a reaction to the conditions they found there, which their leader (as Weick actually notes) described as a "death trap". To say, as Weick does, that they were not "mindful that small events conceal the potential for interactive complexity" (page 569) is simply false.

On Wednesday, I want to take this critique a step further. Both in this 1996 EAQ piece and his original 1993 ASQ piece, Weick blames the loss of thirteen lives on a "failure of leadership", specifically the lack of an "attitude of wisdom" in the crew's foreman, Wag Dodge. But Maclean explicitly tells us that "the disgraced officer's plot", while it makes for entertaining movies, does not give us any insight into what actually happened in the Gulch. It merely combines "small broken pieces of truth" with a "worn-out literary convention" (Maclean 1992, page 155). One of the reasons I worry about the reliability of our scholarship is that empirical error can lead us to blame the wrong people, or simply to blame people who could have done nothing differently. In my view, that's what Weick did in the Mann Gulch case.

[Continues here]

*"They were not in that high state of bliss they had been in when they expected to have the fire out by tomorrow morning ... attacking the fire from the rear would make the job last longer ..." (Maclean 1992, page 66).

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