As someone who often dreads the increasingly nightmarish process of boarding an airplane, I viewed the media coverage of a United Airlines passenger being dragged off an overbooked flight a few months ago with morbid fascination.

The story is seemingly impossible to escape from, and I am certain that readers of this article were bombarded with coverage of the event across a variety of media platforms. The coverage has emboldened other passengers to share their stories of mistreatment, ranging from lost luggage to the death of a prized rabbit. There is even a protest song, as a musical condemnation of the airline from 2008 "United Breaks Guitars" has resurfaced, further embarrassing the company in an already turbulent period.

Despite the hysteria, I was ready to move on to the next major news story until I encountered an article in the Wall Street Journal, one which proclaimed that the "Airline's rules-based culture" was to blame, and that this event was "years in the making". During my time in the nuclear industry, I was often confronted with a similar problem: an organizational culture that had gradually limited the ability of employees to make decisions outside of procedures. While the contexts are different, the challenges are the same, and can be distilled into a fundamental question: How do organizations that discourage independent decision-making cope with disruptive events? Often, the answer to that question is some variation of "not very well", but it would be useful to provide some context.

What is a Rules-Based Culture?

A rules-based culture is one in which an organization attempts to govern and control decision making by implementing, and discouraging deviation from, an extensive framework of policies and procedures. It is one aspect of High-Reliability Organizations (HROs), described by theorists as those organizations engaged in operations where the consequences of failure would be so high that it is considered wholly unacceptable. Unsurprisingly, some of the most commonly used examples of HROs include organizations involved in air transportation and nuclear energy, both of which utilize rules-based cultures to help prevent catastrophic failures such as aviation accidents or nuclear accidents.

Businessman choosing the right door
While the contexts are different, the challenges are the same, and can be distilled into a fundamental question: How do organizations that discourage independent decision-making cope with disruptive events?

When dealing with complex mechanical systems such as airplanes and nuclear reactors, it is understandable that an organization would seek to develop a culture that discourages operators from making unsanctioned decisions. However, this mindset rarely limits itself to the inside of a cockpit or control room, and can easily trickle down to aspects of the organization where flexible decision making should be encouraged. As a result, theorists suggest that rules-based cultures can allow organizations to successfully operate high-risk technology under stable conditions, but can also significantly limit the ability of organizations to cope with emergencies and disruptions.

Challenges

As a result, many of these organizations have re-evaluated their longstanding assumptions regarding incident management, and have attempted to dramatically expand their resilience programs over the past decade. Ironically, many of the organizations that would most benefit from a resilient emergency management program are the ones that face the greatest hurdles implementing one. This has led to some significant growing pains for those attempting to integrate methodologies allowing for flexibility and improvisation into cultures that are heavily focused on rigid procedural adherence.

Finding a way to reconcile these conflicting approaches into a functional emergency management program can be a difficult process, but I would suggest that it starts with managing the expectations of both parties. An organization with a rules-based culture may want a comprehensive emergency management capability, but not fully appreciate the time and resource requirements needed to make this happen. Conversely, an emergency management practitioner may need to make compromises regarding the effectiveness of their program based on available resources, or even the organization's tolerance for change.

Working Together

Once a compromise has been made, I would agree with the best practice of achieving the buy-in of stakeholders at all levels, especially given that an increasing number of relevant theorists have stated that any comprehensive system that supplements established methodologies will not succeed without the approval of users. However, gaining that approval within a rules-based culture requires a level of planning and management that should not be underestimated. The typical approach of explaining the intended changes to management is certainly an important part of the process, but is only the first step. It is important to understand that substantially changing the way that an organization copes with emergencies in a short period of time can be a disruption in and of itself, and change must be carefully planned to ensure success. Development of a comprehensive project management plan consisting of timelines and resource requirements associated with users at all levels can allow stakeholders to fully appreciate the scale of the work expected from them, ideally minimizing changes to established timelines.

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Development of a comprehensive project management plan consisting of timelines and resource requirements associated with users at all levels can allow stakeholders to fully appreciate the scale of the work expected from them, ideally minimizing changes to established timelines.

Furthermore, it is important to recognize that gradual change is better than no change at all, and adopting an approach of continuous development can allow rules-based cultures to improve incrementally without overwhelming stakeholders. This can also mitigate the tendency within our field to insist that organizations adapt to our way of thinking, rather than realizing that we may need to alter our doctrine to the realities on the ground. As an example, many organizations with rules-based cultures would benefit from some of the principles of the Incident Command System, but the system in its original incarnation is unlikely to function effectively within their structures. An Emergency Operations Centre would benefit from a leader with extensive emergency management experience, but telling the CEO of a company that they need to pass over authority to someone in a significantly junior position may not be met with enthusiasm.

Ultimately, the frustrations faced by emergency management professionals within these organizations relate to our desire to lead, protect, and make positive change within our environments. It's rare to meet active professionals in this field who do not take their responsibilities extremely seriously, and the conviction in which we carry out our work can be difficult to accommodate. However, we must be cognizant and respectful of the fact that many organizations are only beginning to familiarise themselves with our profession and pushing too hard to make changes within a rules-based culture can do more harm than good. By approaching these situations with caution, humility and an effective plan for long-term improvement, we can continue to make positive cultural change without compromising the features of an organization that can effectively prevent catastrophic failures.

Douglas Grant

Douglas Grant is a disaster management consultant with nearly a decade of experience developing resilience programs for government, private industry, and critical infrastructure. He is a graduate of Royal Roads University’s Master of Arts in Disaster and Emergency Management program, and a Certified Emergency Manager through the International Association of Emergency Managers. d.grant@calian.com 

4 Comments »

  1. Dear Douglas Grant,

    Many thanks for your thought-provoking article.

    For several years I have been mulling on a very similar issue. To describe it, I first need to sketch my background. During the first half of my career I was a Royal Air Force officer, working in UK and Singapore. Then I spent 17 years in the software services industry in the Netherlands. Finally, I worked 8 years up to retirement as a professor in the Netherlands Defence Academy, specializing in operational ICT. I continue to publish papers in scientific conferences, one of which is the annual conference on Information Systems for Crisis Response And Management (ISCRAM – see http://www.iscram.org).

    What strikes me about the armed forces (both in UK and in the Netherlands) is that, in peacetime, they exhibit a highly rule-based culture. But, in an emergency, most military personnel switch quickly and seamlessly to a much more free-wheeling way of doing business. (I can think of several personal experiences in the RAF.) Even then, the military still have their doctrine, their rules of engagement, and their Standard Operating Procedures. I have always wondered what makes it possible for military personnel to switch culture so easily. Perhaps it is something in the training, or in the military “can-do” attitude. It is obviously context-specific, because the jet-fighter pilot who flies under a bridge to show off will be court-martialled, while the jet-fighter pilot who flies under a bridge to shoot down an enemy bomber will be given a medal.

    Be assured that this facility to switch cultures is not limited to the military, but is also present in many emergency services personnel. But it can be inhibited by management. I was triggered by your statement “telling the CEO of a company that they need to pass over authority to someone in a significantly junior position may not be met with enthusiasm”. One of the key features of a high-reliability organization is that authority is passed to the person who has the knowledge and skills to solve the problem, regardless of rank. I remember being taught in my initial training with the RAF that officers should defer the organization of parties to corporals, because corporals organize better parties. So your problem seems to be the CEO who pulls rank, when knowledge and skills should take precedence. A speculation: maybe CEOs who have themselves come up through the ranks could be less likely to pull rank. (Experience shows that this is not always true.)

    Regards,
    Tim Grant
    Founder, Retired But Active Researchers (R-BAR)

    P.S. I guess we must have common ancestors in Scotland going back a couple of centuries!

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