A critique of Karl Weick

By | 04/12/2020

Karl Weick’s article on the Mann Gluch forest fire is “cherry picking” – Weick selects elements from Maclean’s book that support Weick’s theory of organisation, while omitting significant historical facts that do not sit so well with Weick’s theory. 

On August 5, 1949, around 4:00 PM in the afternoon, 15 paratrooper firefighters jumped out of an airplane at Mann Gulch to fight a forest fire. A sudden flare-up prevented control of the fire and the firefighters had to flee. The leader of the firefighters, Wagner Dodge, lit an escape fire in front of the wildfire. An escape fire is a smaller fire that is lit to burn all vegetation in front of a wildfire, when there is no possibility of escape.

Dodge called on his men, and ordered them to lie down in the area cleared by the escape fire. None of the firefighters obeyed. Instead they ran on to the top of a ridge, hoping they would find safety.

Two firefighters, Robert Sallee and Walter Rumsey, reached the top of the ridge and survived. The leader of the firefighters, Dodge, survived unharmed by laying down in the ashes from his escape fire. The other 12 firefighters died. The fire caught up with them at 5:56 PM – the time when the hands on a firefighter’s wristwatch melted onto the watch dial.

Professor Norman Maclean spent more than a decade researching the Mann Gulch fire and writing the book – Young Men and Fire. The story contains an especially tragic element because the 12 firefighters could have survived by following the orders of their leader Dodge. It also features a counter-intuitive and surprising solution where the leader Dogde fights fire with fire. And finally a moral question – was Dodge responsible for the deaths of the 12 firefighters?

Karl Weick’s article – Prepare Your Organization to Fight Fires – has made the Mann Gulch fire a popular allegory in leadership dialogues. Karl Weick writes in his article that organizations should be better at sense-making and improvisation, so that they are better at dealing with the unpredictable. 

“If organizations paid more attention to improvisation, it would be possible, when one organizational order collapsed, to invent a substitute immediately. Swift replacement of a traditional order with an improvised one can forestall the confusion that follows a command such as “drop your tools” or “jump into this fire.””

Weick’s assumes that organisations will inevitably come into situations they can’t foresee, and therefore concludes they must be better at improvisation. He is making the claim, that if the firefighters had only been better at improvising, they would have calmly dropped their tools, and laid down next to their leader and awaited the roaring wildfire. 

Weick’s only source for the historical facts is Norman Maclean’s book – Young Men and Fire, and it is based on this book that Weick writes his article. In this column I will present the critique that Weick’s article is “cherry picking”. Weick selects elements from Maclean’s book that support Weick’s theory of organisation, while omitting significant historical facts that do not sit so well with Weick’s theory. 

The organization is The United States Forest Service 

Weick writes about the small group of firefighters and nothing about the organisation The United States Forest Service. With another popular allegory, we could say that Wick studies the elephant’s trunk and then comments on the whole elephant. 

After the Man Gluch fire, Chief Forester Richard E. McArdle decided that The United States Forest Service could avoid a repetition of the tragedy by analysing fires and making emergency plans. 

Maclean writes that the result of analysing fires and making emergency plans, was that in the 40 years after the Mann Gulch tragedy, no paratrooper firefighters were killed. 

Making emergency plans and training firefighters in these emergency plans was not a new strategy. The firefighters at the Man Gulch fire had learned four emergency plans. One of these plans was to run towards the top of a ridge, where fire can’t burn because there is less fuel. It was preciely this emergency plan that saved Rumsey and Sallee, the two firefighters that survived. It was not sense-making, dialouge or improvisation that saved Rumsey and Sallee, it was an emergency plan and the two surviving firefighters stuck to the plan and survived. 

Doge’s escape fire, was on the other hand an improvisation, therefore it was an unknown technique for the firefighters. The use of an escape fire requires that firefighters are able to restrain the instinctive behaviour of running away from a wildfire. It might have been better if Dodge had followed the known emergency plan and led his men along with Rumsey and Sallee to the top of the ridge. It does not require confidence in a leader to run for your life, but it does require enormous confidence in an improvisation to lie down and wait for a roaring wildfire. Wagner Dodge was put on trial, in order to investigate wether 12 men died because of his improvisation.

Weick argues that we will always face unknown situations that it is not possible to prepare for, therefore the organisation needs to be better at improvising. But after the Mann Gulch fire it became clear that an escape fire was an emergency plan that was both known and used long before the Mann Gulch fire. The use of an escape fire was simply not known by the firefighters in Mann Gulch or by the leader Dodge. Which can support the opposite view of Weicks interpretation – the situation was predictable and it had been possible to train fire fighters in this emergency plan.

One of the new emergency plans that came out of analysing fires after Mann Gluch, was of course training in the use of an escape fire. And escape fire has saved the lives of firefighters since the Mann Gulch fire. Dodge’s use of the escape fire was a fascinating improvisation, but the improvisation did not work precisely because it was an improvisation – there was no time to practice or explain the technique. Therefore it is difficult to see how Dodge’s improvisation can function as a convincing case for improvisation.

Prepare your organisation for attacks, competitors or fire.

Weick recommends improvisation to all organisations regardless of the “species” of the organisation – the advice is the same whether we’re talking about firefighters, the military, a commercial enterprise or a football team. It makes Weick’s advice abstract and generic to the point of being utterly useless, it’s a bit like a football coach whos only job it to shout from the sideline “improvise”!

Major general Carl von Clausewitz analysed wars and made military strategies. Although the result is generic strategies, the result of such an analysis is still recommendations for a particular type of organisation. Clausewitz came up with recommendations about defence, manoeuvre, espionage and attack. Marketing professor Michael Porter does not analyse stories about forest fires, therefore he makes recommendations with words such as customer, supplier, negotiation and competitors. The United States Forest Service analysed fires and made concrete emergency plans witch words such as weather, flight, ridges and fire.

When we hold Weick’s recommendation of improvisation up against Chief Forester McArdle’s use of analysis and emergency plans, then it’s worth repeating Maclean – in the 40 years since the Mann Gulch tragedy, no paratrooper firefighter has died. Since it would be more that 40 years after the fire, that Wieck wrote his article, this has noting to do with his advice. From that perspective the Mann Gulch fire could be upheld as an example of the success of making emergency plans, and this story is omitted in Weick’s article.


Thomas Basbøll (2015) from Copenhagen Business School goes one step further in his critique of Weick, and points out that Weick changes the historic facts to such an extent that Weick writes fiction and passes it on as facts. 

Indeed, one suspects that since he wanted the disaster to have resulted from a “collapse of sensemaking” he distorted his so-called “data” (which not he but Maclean collected) to fit his theory. He cooked the data. He fabricated events to suit his hypothesis. Whether he did this intentionally, or was just enormously careless, doesn’t matter. It’s the worst thing you can do as a scholar, especially when you are sitting in judgment where lives were lost.

In this article I have focused on “cherry picking” – meaning picking facts that fit the theory, and omitting anything that does not. However Thomas Basbøll is correct in asserting, that Weick changes the historic facts to fit his theory.


There is also a lot of often rather comical differences between Weick and Maclean. Weick writes e.g. that “Evidence is growing that nonstop talk is a crucial source of coordination in complex systems that are susceptible to disasters”. Maclean prophetically predicted that someday an academic professor would get just such an idea, and he writes.

“If Socrates had been foreman on the Mann Gulch fire, he and his crew would have been cremated while they were sitting there considering it. Dialogue doesn’t work well when the temperature is approaching the lethal 140 degrees.”


In Weick’s defence, it could be argued that he uses the story of the Mann Gulch fire as an inspirational allegory, a pedagogical tool or a thought experiment – so the historic facts are not relevant for his purpose. But if we think of the Mann Gluch forest fire as a thought experiment, then it must be justified by appeal to experience, and hence it again becomes reasonable to point out that the historical facts do not support Wieck’s theory. At the very least we can say that, Weicks evidence in support of his claims is so weak it’s possible to refute it with the Mann Gluch story.

In Mann Gulch two men survived because of a plan, and Wagner Dodge was put on trial, in order to investigate wether 12 men died because of his improvisation. We know that Chief Forester Richard E. McArdle made his organisation analysed fires and make emergency plans, and we have a fair indication that this worked rather well.

Karl Weick recommends non-stop talk and improvisation, and the historical facts simply can’t support Weick’s recommendations, we are left with some unsupported and rather fantastic claims.

“Plans are useless,” Eisenhower said about preparing for battle, “but planning is indispensable.” This is a recurrent theme in strategy and management – how to balance the ability to improvise with planing.

Karl Weick followers that love sensemaking jargon will not be convinced by this argument, but for the less dogmantiv I would like this column to be a recommendation to read Norman Maclean’s book – Young Men and Fire. If a magician’s trick is to be succesfull, then it requires that the audience look in the wrong place. I would suggest to you, that the right place to look is in Norman Maclean’s book – Young Men and Fire. Weick’s article on leadership is omitting significant historical facts that do not sit so well with Weick’s theory, it’s really nothing more than a tendentious retelling of history.


References

Basbøll, Thomas; Graham, Henrik (2006). “Substitutes for Strategy Research: Notes on the source of Karl Weick’s anecdote of the young lieutenant and the map of the Pyrenees”. Ephemera: Theory & Politics in Organizations. 6 (2): 194–204.

Basbøll, T. (2015, April 01). Error and Blame, part 4. Retrieved November 28, 2020

Basbøll, T. (2021) Any Old Map Won‟t Do: Improving the Credibility of Storytelling in Sensemaking Scholarship

Maclean, N. (1992). Young men & fire. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mintzberg, H., Ahlstrand, B. W., Lampel, J., & Mintzberg, H. (2006). Strategy bites back: It is far more, and less, than you ever imagined : the complete guide through the wilds of strategic management ; Strategy safari. Harlow: Financial Times Prentice Hall.

Rosenzweig, P. M. (2007). The halo effect and other business delusions: Why the experts are so often wrong–and how to get it right. New York: Free Press.

Weick, K. E. (January 01, 1996). Prepare your organization to fight fires. Harvard Business Review, 74, 3.)

Weick, K. E. (January 01, 1996). The collapse of sensemaking in organizations: The Mann Gulch disaster. Wildfire.

Weick, K. E. (10/16/2016) South Canyon Revisited: Lessons from High Reliability Organizations

Wise, J. (n.d.). Gladwell’s Stickiness Problem. Psychology Today.

Kritik af Karl Weick – dansk ældre version

Karl Weicks artikel om Mann Gluch branden er “Cherry picking” – det er pseudovidenskab – det ligner videnskab, men i virkeligheden er det ikke er andet end en tendentiøs genfortælling af en god historie.

Den 5. august 1949, omkring kl. 16, spang 15 faldskærms-brandmænd ud ved Mann Gulch for at bekæmpe en skovbrand. En pludselig opblussen forhindrede kontrol af branden, og brandmændene måtte flygte fra branden. Lederen af brandmændene, Wagner Dodge, tændte en flugtild foran branden. En flugtild er en mindre brand, der bliver tændt for at brænde al vegetation foran en løbeild, når der ikke findes nogen mulighed for flugt.

Dodge kaldte på sine mænd, og beordrede dem til at lægge sig ned i det område, som blev ryddet af flugtilden. Ingen af brandmænde adlød. I stedet løb de videre mod toppen af et højderyg, hvor de håbede, de ville finde sikkerhed.

To brandmænd, Robert Sallee og Walter Rumsey, nåede højderyggen og overlevede. Lederen af brandmændene, Dodge, overlevede ved at lægge sig i asken fra sin flugtild. De øvrige 12 brandmænd omkom. Ilden indhentede dem kl. 17.56 – det tidspunkt, hvor viserne på en brandmands armbåndsur smeltede sig fast på urskiven.

Professor Norman Maclean brugte mere end et årti på at undersøge Mann Gulch branden og skrive bogen – Young Men and Fire. Historien indeholder et særligt tragisk element, fordi de 12 brandmænd måske kunne være overlevet ved at følge ordren fra lederen Dodge. Den indeholder også en kontra-intuitiv og overraskende løsning, hvor lederen Dogde bekæmper ild med ild. Og endelig et moralsk spørgsmål – var Dodge ansvarlig for de 12 brandsmænds død?

Karl Weicks artikel Prepare Your Organization to Fight Fires har gjort at Mann Gulch branden er blevet en populær allegori i dialoger om ledelse. Karl Weick skriver i sin artikel at organisationer bør være bedre til sense-making og improvisation, så de er bedre til at håndtere det uforudsigelige. 

“If organizations paid more attention to improvisation, it would be possible, when one organizational order collapsed, to invent a substitute immediately. Swift replacement of a traditional order with an improvised one can forestall the confusion that follows a command such as “drop your tools” or “jump into this fire.””

Weicks konklusion er at virksomheder vil komme i situationer, som de ikke kan forudse, derfor skal de være bedre til improvisation. Weicks eneste kilde til de historiske fakta er Noman Macleans bog Young Men and Fire, og det er på den baggrund at Weick skriver artiklen. I denne klumme vil jeg komme med den kritik, at Weicks artikel er “Cherry picking”. Weick udvælger elementer fra Maclean’s bog, som understøtter Weicks organisationsteori, og samtidigt udelader Weick væsentlige historiske fakta, som ikke stemmer overens med Weicks teori. Faktisk går Karl Weick så vidt, at han ændrer på historiske fakta for at få historien til at passe på sin teori.

Organisationen er The United States Forest Service 

Weick skriver kun om den lille gruppe af brandmænd og ikke noget om organisationen The United States Forest Service. Med en anden populær allegori kan vi sige, at Weick studerer snablen for så at udtale sig om hele elefanten. 

Efter Man Gluch branden besluttede chief forester Richard E. McArdle, at The United States Forest Service kunne undgå en gentagelse af tragedien, ved at analysere brande og lave nødplaner. Maclean skriver, at resultatet var at i 40 år efter Mann Gulch-tragedien, var der ingen faldskærms-brandmænd der omkom. 

At lave nødplaner og optræne brandmænd i disse nødplaner var ikke en ny strategi. Brandmændene ved Man Gulch branden havde lært fire nødplaner. Den ene af disse planer bestod i at løbe mod toppen af et højdedrag, hvor ilden brænder dårligere, fordi der er mindre brændsel. Det var denne nødplan, der blev anvendt af Rumsey og Sallee, de to brandmænd der overlevede. Det var ikke sense-making eller improvisation, der reddede Rumsey og Sallee, det var en forud indlært nødplan, og de to overlevende brandmænd holdt sig til planen. 

Doges flugtild var derimod en improvisation, derfor var det en ukendt teknik for brandmændene. Brugen af flugtild krævede at brandmændene kunne bekæmpe den instinktive adfærd at løbe væk fra ild. Det havde måske været bedre, om Dodge havde fulgt den kendte nødplan og ledt sine mænd sammen med Rumsey og Sallee videre mod toppen af højdedraget. Det kræver ikke tillid til en leder at løbe for livet, det kræver derimod ganske enorm tillid til en improviseret teknik, at skulle lægge sig ned og vente på en buldrende løbeild. 

Weick argumenterer for, at vi altid vil stå overfor nye ukendte situationer, som det ikke er muligt at forberede sig på, derfor skal organisationen være bedre til improvisation. Men efter Mann Gulch branden kom det frem, at flugtild var en nødplan, der var både kendt og brugt længe før Mann Gulch branden. Brugen af flugtild var blot ikke kendt af brandmændene i Mann Gulch eller af lederen Dodge. Hvilket kan understøtte det modsatte synspunkt, at situationen var forudsigelig, og at det var muligt at træne flugtild som en konkret nødplan.

En af de nye nødplaner, der kom ud af at analysere brande efter Mann Gluch, det var naturligvis træning i brugen af flugtild. Og flugtild har reddet livet for andre brandmænd siden Mann Gulch branden. Dodges brug af flugtilden var en fascinerende improvisation, men selve improvisationen fungerede ikke, fordi der ikke var tid til at indøve eller forklare teknnikken. Derfor er det vanskeligt at se, hvordan Doges improvisation kan fungere som et argument for improvisation.

Forbered din organisation på angreb, konkurrenter eller ild.

Carl von Clausewitz analyserede krige og beskrev militære strategier. Selvom resultatet er strategier, så er resultatet af en sådan analyse stadig konkrette anbefalinger for en bestemt type af organisation. Clausewitz kom med konkrete anbefalinger, hvor der optræder ord som forsvar, manøvre, spionage og angreb. Marketing professor Michael Porter analyserer ikke fascinerende historier om skovbrande, derfor kan han komme med konkrete anbefalinger, hvor der optræder ord som kunde, leverandør, forhandling og konkurrenter. The United States Forest Service analyserede brande og lavede konkrette nødplaner, hvor der optræder ord som vejr, flugt, højdedrag og ild.

Weick anbefaler improvisation til alle organisationer over en kam – uanset om vi taler om brandmænd, militæret eller en kommerciel virksomhed. Det gør at råddet bliver temmelig abstrakt, det er lidt som en fodboldtræner vis eneste strategiske råd er “Gå ud og vær opfindsomme”.

Når vi holder Weicks anbefaling af improvisation op imod chief forester McArdles brug af analyse og konkrete nødplaner, så er det værd at gentage Maclean – i de 40 år siden Mann Gulch-tragedien er ingen faldskærms-brandmand omkommet. Mann Gulch branden er en succeshistorie om at analysere og lave nødplaner, og den historie undlader Weick i sin artikel.

Der er en lang række af komiske forskelle mellem Weick og Maclean. Weick skriver f.eks. at “Evidence is growing that nonstop talk is a crucial source of coordination in complex systems that are susceptible to disasters.”. Maclean forudså at en eller anden akademiker ville få den idé, idet han skriver.

“If Socrates had been foreman on the Mann Gulch fire, he and his crew would have been cremated while they were sitting there considering it. Dialogue doesn’t work well when the temperature is approaching the lethal 140 degrees.”

Thomas Basbøll fra CBS går et skridtet videre i sin kritik af Weick, og gør opmærksom på Weick ændrer på fakta i en sådan grad, at Weick skriver fiktion og videregiver det som fakta.

Til Weicks forsvar kan der argumenteres for, at han anvender historien om branden som en inspirerende allegori eller et pædagogisk redskab til at skabe forståelse for sin teori, og at han ikke ønsker at komme med konkrete anbefalinger til brandmænd. Omvendt virker det rimeligt, at påpege at de historiske fakta ikke understøtter Wiecks teori. Vi ved at chief forester Richard E. McArdle satte sin organisation igang med analysere brande og lave nødplaner, og vi har en rimelig indikation af at det i virkede. Karl Weick anbefaler non-stop talk og improvisation, men da de historiske fakta ikke understøtter Weicks konklusioner, står vi tilbage med en række af påstande.

Hvis en tryllekunstners trick skal virke, så kræver det, at tilskuerne kigger, men at de ikke kigger for længe, eller at de kigger det forkerte sted. Weicks artikel om ledelse er pseudovidenskab – det ligner videnskab, men det er i virkeligheden ikke er andet end en tendentiøs genfortælling af en god historie.

Hvis du er kommet hertil i teksten – så efterlad gerne en kommentar og lad mig høre hvad du tænker om ovenstående er en forfejlet videnskabsteoretisk kritik.

Litteratur

Jeg vil gerne anbefale nedenstående artikler af Thomas Basbøll og Henrik Graham. Deres kritik af Karl Weick er en ikke mindre graverende kritik for plagiering. Wieck drager en række konklusioner ud fra Miroslav Holub historien om soldater, der er faret vild i Alperne, og finder vej med et gammelt kort, som i slutningen viser sig at være et kort over Pyrenæerne. Weick glemmer både at fortælle, at han ikke har skrevet histoiren og at den er fiktiv, endelige er denne fiktive historie et tyndt grundlag for videnskab om ledelse. Du finder dermed en gentagelse af temaet om videnskabsteori – hvor Basbøll fremhæver at videnskab om ledelse ikke er tendentiøs genfortælling af gode historier.

Basbøll, Thomas; Graham, Henrik (2006). “Substitutes for Strategy Research: Notes on the source of Karl Weick’s anecdote of the young lieutenant and the map of the Pyrenees”. Ephemera: Theory & Politics in Organizations. 6 (2): 194–204. 

Basbøll, T. (2015, April 01). Error and Blame, part 4. Retrieved November 28, 2020, from 

Maclean, N. (1992). Young men & fire. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mintzberg, H., Ahlstrand, B. W., Lampel, J., & Mintzberg, H. (2006). Strategy bites back: It is far more, and less, than you ever imagined : the complete guide through the wilds of strategic management ; Strategy safari. Harlow: Financial Times Prentice Hall.

Rosenzweig, P. M. (2007). The halo effect and other business delusions: Why the experts are so often wrong–and how to get it right. New York: Free Press.

Weick, K. E. (January 01, 1996). Prepare your organization to fight fires. Harvard Business Review, 74, 3.)  

Weick, K. E. (January 01, 1996). The collapse of sensemaking in organizations: The Mann Gulch disaster. Wildfire.

Wise, J. (n.d.). Gladwell’s Stickiness Problem. Psychology Today.

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