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Communication Breakdown Part 4: High Reliability Organizations

In our world, there exist certain organizations that operate at such a high level of performance that it is almost unfathomable. One of these is the crew of an aircraft carrier. To set the stage, below is a glimpse at their everyday life:

So you want to understand an aircraft carrier? Well, just imagine that it's a busy day, and you shrink San Francisco Airport to only one short runway and one ramp and gate. Make planes take off and land at the same time, at half the present time interval, rock the runway from side to side, and require that everyone who leaves in the morning returns that same day. Make sure the equipment is so close to the edge of the envelope that it's fragile. Then turn off the radar to avoid detection, impose strict controls on radios, fuel the aircraft in place with their engines running, put an enemy in the air, and scatter live bombs and rockets around. Now wet the whole thing down with salt water and oil, and man it with 20-year-olds, half of whom have never seen an airplane close-up. Oh, and by the way, try not to kill anyone.” - Senior officer, Air Division

This is one example of what is a called a high-reliability organization (HRO). HROs have been defined as large, formal organizations that perform complex, inherently hazardous, and highly technical tasks that are highly interdependent and under severe time pressure, BUT where safety and reliability are a must. Karl Weick, Karlene Roberts, and others have done some great research and analysis of these types of organizations. This post will explore just a few of their fascinating insights and their applicability to the rest of us.


The structure of HROs is such that they can quickly move from a highly interdependent hierarchical system to more flexible, adaptable forms as changes arise. This is possible because of two seemingly conflicting characteristics: 1) formal rules and procedures that everyone understands perfectly and follows, and 2) something called “migrated decision making” that allows the person with the best knowledge of a specific situation (regardless of rank) to making the decision. This is an emerging concept that is called “power to the edge” where leaders may understand the global strategy, but the people at the interaction point are the ones that have the best and most accurate information and therefore are empowered and responsible for making the actual decisions and execution. In increasingly complex environments where reliability is vital, this is the most effective type of organization structure we have. Power to the edge means that there is a very comprehensive plan and hierarchy in place, but that at any point the situation may require any single person within that organization to stop the action or change the action if they see the need – otherwise it may turn into a much bigger issues later. This goes beyond just their specific task – if anything seems wrong, the process is stopped or modified. This also means that each person must have an strong understanding of what others around them are doing and so they can look out for the broader interests. This brings us to the next key insight – efficiency versus reliability.

Efficiency vs. Reliability

HROs must emphasize reliability over efficiency. Redundancy and slack (i.e. allowing time to catch mistakes) are key components to HROs. While these types of organization are highly productive and have almost flawless execution, these results do not come from seeking efficiency – they come from seeking reliability. These types of organizations are characterized by lots of training and cross-training. This is notably different from specialization where individuals learn their own scope of work very well. Instead, in HROs, individuals understand that one’s own tasks are strongly interrelated with all the tasks being done before, simultaneously, and after and therefore “mastery” includes a deep working understanding of other parts of the organization in addition to one’s own work. Aircraft carriers have been referred to as “floating universities” because everyone is both learning and teaching constantly. Everyone needs to know their own tasks flawlessly which means knowing what to do, knowing every possible thing that could go wrong, and understanding the subtle and obvious signs to look for to know what direction things are heading. It also requires that each person understand the bigger picture and how their actions integrated and are influenced by the rest of the system. Everyone is expected to think and make sense of the complex situation around them (the opposite of specialized mechanistic behavior) – an HRO is a fast-paced learning organization if there ever was one.

Collective Mind

The most intriguing aspect of HROs is what Weick & Roberts referred to as “collective mind”. Collective mind is not groupthink (i.e. where everyone agrees and goes along with whatever is being said). Collective mind is what happens when the actions of the organization are so interdependent, that the system itself has its own intelligence above and beyond any one individual – e.g. “portions … are known by all, but all is known by none”. This is how natural systems work – they are complex yet robust and from that complexity there emerges a higher intelligence that notices the slightest deviation, provides an almost instantaneous local response, adapting the system seamlessly to the changing situation, and creates an end result of solid reliability.

Collective mind is not the same as having a tight-knit team; it is actually very different. In many cases our teams/organizations do not enjoy a tight-knit team due to short-term collaborations, high turnover, or the temporary nature of the mission - but these are not prerequisites for a highly-developed collective mind. Collective mind stress the coordination of actions (e.g. interdependencies, conditions of satisfaction, personal commitments) rather than getting everyone to think the same. Collective mind does not require everyone to agree or understand one another – in fact diversity in opinions and expertise is desired – however there must be a foundation of high trust and mutual respect. Lastly, there is a focus on strategic communication over unrestricted openness – this means people don’t talk often and about all kinds of things, but rather they communicate exactly what is needed for others to confidently assess the broader situation and perform their tasks.

The complexity of collective mind makes it difficult to simultaneously understand the many variables at a given point in time, so people in HROs instead focus on the “rhythm”, cadence, and patterns of behavior. When there is a disruption to that rhythm, it does not “feel” right and that is the first intuitive sense that there may be a potential problem. Often that may be enough to pause operations until the system finds its rhythm again, but regardless, everyone kicks into a state of heightened awareness –not just with their own tasks but with regard to the entire system.

Another critical component needed for collective mind is a continuous process of resocialization. Resocialization is the process of seasoned members teaching newcomers. The most effective way to transfer knowledge quickly and comprehensively to new people is through storytelling where a memorable story tends to be remembered much more easily and often often brings up many more useful contextual details than could have been shared in a written standard operation procedure. Another aspect of resocialization is that the seasoned members of the team get an opportunity reconsider and think critically about how they have been operating every time they begin to teach someone new. The other critical part of this, however, is the interest and inquisitiveness of the newcomers; without their questions and new perspective, processes (and stories) become stale and mechanistic (and also lose their relevance and reliability).

There are many lessons that we can learn from the study of high reliability organizations. Here I’ve only touched on a few. However, the level of mindfulness, awareness, understanding that this requires from a team, the greater intelligence that is possible in creating a highly-developed collective mind, and the amazing results that are possible make this area of study too important to ignore - too important to ignore AND (for some of us) too aspirational to want to ignore. The promise of HROs is that by focusing our teams on reliability we achieve much greater production and efficiency than if we had focused on efficiency alone. PLUS, we do it in such a way that increases our human capital (knowledge, awareness, and self-worth), social capital (allowing us to truly feel part of something much greater than ourselves), and create a truly transformative experience for everyone involved.


  • Eisenberg, Eric (1990) “Jamming: Transcendence through organizing.” Communication Research, 17: 139-164

  • Weick, K. & Roberts, K. (1993) “Collective Mind in Organizations: Heedful Interrelating on Flight Decks.” Administrative Science Quarterly, 38: 357-381

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