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High Reliability Organizations: What If You Acted as if Your Life Was at Stake?

Imagine 365,000 metric tons of steel floating on the ocean, populated by over 5,000 people sitting on two nuclear reactors, millions of litres of jet fuel and countless explosives. Everyone’s there for a single purpose: To keep up flight operations of over 50 jets on a moving airfield the size of three football fields. Sounds like a fatal accident waiting to happen. In reality, it’s a surprisingly reliable endeavour. Because we’re on an aircraft carrier, an example of a so-called High Reliability Organization (HRO).

High Reliability Organizations?

HROs are places such as aircraft carriers, operating theatres, or air traffic control that quite successfully deal with life or death situations on a daily basis. Even though they operate in an environment characterised by extreme complexity and a high risk of failure, the rate of fatal accidents is relatively low.

In their book Managing the Unexpected: Resilient Performance in an Age of Uncertainty, researchers Karl Weick and Kathleen Sutcliffe identified five core principles such organisations share. High Reliability Organizations are:

  1. preoccupied with failure
  2. resistent to simplification
  3. sensitive to operations
  4. committed to resilience and
  5. they practice a deference to expertise.

In a nutshell, HROs identify problems before they occur and know how to handle them in case they do happen. High Reliability Organizations don’t underestimate seemingly insignificant problems. They consistently strike a balance between being in the detail and a focus on the mission. This is mirrored in their trust in every individual’s expertise.

As Weick and Sutcliffe point out, even the lowest rank on an aircraft carrier can halt flight operations if they see a potential problem. The keyword here is ‘potential’. Because the interesting question is what happens if they turn out to be wrong? Well, they’re rewarded for speaking up.

…as if Your Life Was at Stake

While fascinating, HROs seem far removed from our lives. Unless you’re actually working as a heart surgeon I guess. But it’s remarkable that the places where mistakes have the most severe consequences are supposed to be the ones with the healthiest relationship with failure. Perhaps there’s a lesson in there?

What if we adopted the principles of High Reliability Organizations? Complex, high-risk, fear of failure. Sounds like your average life. But I don’t mean only adopting the HRO rhetoric while cruising along nihilistically as if nothing we did made a difference anyway. I mean genuinely acting as if our lives were at stake. Because they are. The principles could look something like this:

  1. Be wary of minor problems and failures. To adjust course, not to beat yourself up
  2. Life is complex and difficult. So be mindful of your daily micro routines. They’re the building blocks of your life
  3. Set yourself high long-term goals, then work towards them being in the moment
  4. Welcome problems and failure as learning opportunities that make you stronger
  5. Trust your judgement and expertise, including when you’re wrong. Reward yourself for having taken responsibility, even when you failed.

Closing Thoughts

I get it. High Reliability Organizations are elite places. A direct comparison might be a bit overconfident. In contrast to HROs, our personal worst-case scenarios lurk somewhere in a distant hazy future. But what would happen in five years if we neglected the relationship with our kids or stayed in that toxic job even though it destroys our soul? Sounds like a high long-term danger disguised as low short-term risk.

Let’s test this idea: If there are High Reliability Organisations, there must be LROs, Low Reliability Organisations. Those that are detached from reality, but also boring in their simplicity. Even if things go horribly wrong, there are zero consequences and nobody cares. Does that sound like your life?