A person, viewed from behind, looks into a fire

Sharing Context and Purpose at Work

By Sam Robinson

Karl Weick’s 1993 paper The Collapse of Sensemaking in Organizations: The Mann Gulch Disaster is an analysis of a notorious incident in 1949 in Montana, USA. The disaster centred on a team of firefighters attempting to contain an out-of-control forest fire in a gulch located along the upper Missouri River. Tragically, the fire claimed the lives of 13 firefighters.

Reading through the story, I can’t help but be affected by the torment that would have been faced by those people in fighting the fire. While it’s possible to read through the events dispassionately in the safety of a cosy office, a historic anecdote from the dim past, for some reason tragic events like these can stick firmly to our consciousness. This particular tragic event is one of those for me.

Not all of us will directly experience a crisis like this, but all of us will experience a crisis of some kind from time to time. Crisis stories are part of the shared language we use to make sense of the world.

Recently I had the good fortune to talk to people working in an organisation and affected by a crisis, within days of it happening. A serious road accident involving a number of vehicles, lives being threatened and impacts on a major arterial road – the organisation was called to coordinate the immediate response. Talking to the people involved, their overriding sense was that the teams involved, from very different parts of the organisation, worked together “like clockwork”. But there was also a frustrating and lingering question: “why isn’t it always like this?”

What is it about a crisis that focuses our attention so fully for a short period of time?