How to Build a High Reliability Organization


What is a ‘High Reliability Organization’?

In my last briefing, 10 Reasons Why You Should Think About Recession, I introduced the term ‘High Reliability Organization’. This of course raises a question ‘Just what exactly is a high reliability organization?’  That’s the question that I would like to quickly address here and I will also add a few pointers for the first steps in building a high reliability operation.

The Concept

The ideas and research behind the concept of high reliability organization building, which is another term for organization mindfulness, emanate primarily from the work of the researchers Karl Weick and Kathleen Sutcliffe. Weick and Sutcliffe’s work has examined the successful and unsuccessful handling of unforeseen organizational crises including the Mann Gulch forest fire and the Bhopal disaster among others. This work produced one key characteristic that separated high reliability or resilient organizations from other more vulnerable organizations and that was the ability to ‘sensemake’.

Sensemaking, at its simplest, is the ongoing ability of the organization to rapidly act, explore and learn in a repeating cycle when and even before the unexpected appears.


In a world that now appears to be completely unpredictable, building a high resilience organization (HRO) should be at the top of the management agenda. So what are the characteristics of an HRO?

Firstly, as the term ‘sensemaking’ suggests, it is all in the ‘mind’ or culture of an organization rather than formal structures or processes. Looking at research, we can point to the following key characteristics of high reliability organizing:

  • Challenging the accepted: High reliability organizations, and particularly their leaders, have a preoccupation with challenging the commonly accepted. It’s a hard fact that as human beings we are social creatures and we like to agree with each other and be friendly. All very good social qualities, but qualities that can get in the way of a high reliability mind-set. The danger is of course groupthink which is the number one enemy of high reliability organizing. The real problem is that groupthink tends to silently exert its influence as organizations grow and become more successful. The common reality is that as organizations grow, teams, especially at the top, subliminally construct their own views of both the organization and particularly the outside world. The issue is that these views tend to reflect what we want to see as a group or team rather than reality. It sounds strange that groups or teams construct these ‘artificial views’, but it’s an important point to grasp as this artificial or constructed view is a major cause of organizational decline; hence the drive to challenge accepted assumptions, perspectives and strategies in high reliability organizations.
  • The ‘known unknowns’: A preoccupation with uncertainties, finding and exploring the ‘known unknowns’ as opposed to reliance on commonly accepted certainties.
  • Failure and learning: A preoccupation with failure, both exploring potential causes of failure and understanding that to innovate, organizations need to fail. Ask the leader of any innovative, frame-breaking organization and the chances are that that leader will tell you that the best ideas were born out of failure.
  • Questioning: Questioning what worked before – will it work in the future?
  • Understanding: Understanding the needs of internal and external stakeholders. I’ve researched a range of major organizational change projects and there is one key factor that keeps jumping out at me. That’s the observation that successful CEOs invest their time in a totally different way to the unsuccessful. Inter-action, particularly with staff at the business level and outside stakeholders, is a primary activity for the successful and a third-rate activity for the unsuccessful. Much of this inter-action has the long-term aim of creating a culture that challenges and learns.
  • Alertness: Encouraging, across the organization, a state of alertness to change and the unexpected, to pick up the ‘smoke before the fire’, the early warning signals of a change or crisis ahead. Beware too of simplifying or ‘explaining away’ unexpected events.
  • Deference to skills: Not relying upon the formal hierarchy, especially when the unexpected hits. Formal structures and formal levels of authority are fine to manage the expected, but not the unexpected, the unpredictable. When the unexpected strikes, the right skills, knowledge and experience are needed to meet and explore the crisis. The formal structure can be a misleading guide as to who is right to manage the unexpected.

So what do we do?

Building a high reliability organization starts in your mind and the collective mind of your team – not in formal structures or processes. In many respects, high reliability organizing is all about a continuous battle against accepted thinking. One way of starting out is to actively seek out the deep, hidden assumptions that drive thinking and particularly strategy-making in your team. I spent a lot of time considering those common, hidden, deep assumptions that typically drive strategy-making when I wrote my book The Era of Global Transition and here is a short list of several popular assumptions that you might want to reflect upon to start you off:

  • There is no alternative to capitalism
  • The world will be one connected marketplace
  • The promise of increasing wealth will overcome all other differences
  • The world is too inter-connected for there to another major conflict
  • Global connectivity is a future certainty
  • Virtual and distributed relationships will replace traditional personal relationships
  • The economic and political power will shift from West to East

If you would like to discuss any of these or other popular assumptions or if you would like to explore high reliability organizing in more detail, then please don’t hesitate to get in touch!

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