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?

I’m aware of course of studies about people being put under pressure and tending to regress to basic, often unhelpful behaviour – it’s likely there’s a tipping point, where the crisis becomes so enormous that it clouds what would be “normal” thinking processes for an individual. Weick’s article covers much of this material beautifully. But let’s hold that thought – I’m talking here about a response to a crisis that is characterised by productive, quick action.

I’m going to put forward a proposition and I would like to hear what you think.

A crisis tends to galvanise the people involved into productive action more so than “business as usual,” times where there is no crisis. It does this because of two things that are shared very quickly, powerfully and in an environment of heightened senses and awareness: context and purpose.

The nature of a crisis means that people – in general – share the information quickly that’s needed by others in order to achieve a clear outcome. Think about a major incident involving a range of government authorities called to assist. It’s also the case that a crisis makes some information obvious, including the purpose. What has happened? Where did it happen? What do you need me to do? What are we trying to achieve? People need to know this information in order to help. A crisis can make the answers self-evident – and for those that aren’t being answered, a person will typically try to find out, and quickly.

Does this tell us anything about times when there is no crisis? I think it does. What this tells us is that people need to understand the context and purpose of their work in order to do that work well. Sharing this information is often more successful in a time of heightened awareness because a crisis can create this understanding.

Part of the challenge of leading people well is maintaining a focus on sharing relevant context and purpose when things are calm. Nurturing this practice helps create conditions for people to feel cared for, focused and less confused. That’s a place where we all want to work.