The collapse of sensemaking in organizations: The Mann Gulch disaster

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Citation: Karl E. Weick (1993) The collapse of sensemaking in organizations: The Mann Gulch disaster. Administrative Science Quarterly (RSS)
Internet Archive Scholar (search for fulltext): The collapse of sensemaking in organizations: The Mann Gulch disaster
Tagged: Sociology (RSS) sensemaking (RSS), organization theory (RSS), forest fires (RSS)


Weick's article is a sort of in-depth analysis of the book Young men and fire by Normal Maclean which is a story about a large fire-fighting disaster that happened in Mann Gulch that claimed the lifes of 13 firefighters. The paper uses the example of Mann Gulch to ask two key questions:

  • Why do organizations unravel or disentigrate?
  • How can organizations be made more resilenct.

The setting was a large forest fire in Mann Gulch which was fought by 16 "smokejumpers" who parachuted into the area. Essentially, a quickly moving fire "jumped" the gulch and was moving at the group very quickly at more than 200 meters per second. The group foreman Dodge saw this, lit an escape fire in front of him and yelled at others to lay down in it. None did and all, except two who escaped through a crack in a ridge. The rest of the team died. Had the other group members listened to Dodge, they would have survived.

Weick treats the fire fighters as an example of a "minimal organization" and suggests that the organization disintegrated in the context of the disaster. Weick argues that the organization failure was the result of a simultaneous and interrelated collapse of both "sensemaking" and structure.

Sensemaking, which Weick introduced to the field of organization studies, is the process through which people give meaning to experience. Weick argues that, "the basic idea of sensemaking is that reality is an ongoing accomplishment that emerges from efforts to create order and make retrospective sense of what occurs."

Weick argues that a number of jumpers expected the fire to be small but encountered a large amount of information which they could not make sense of. The fire did not act like the fire they expected and understood and a number of people behaved in ways which they could not reconcile with the particular situation. Weick lists 9 events which contribute to this. For example, people did not understand what Dodge was doing when he lit the fire or told them drop their tools and could not make sense of what he was trying to do.

Weick also argues taht were problems of structure in that the firefighters were "essentially their own boss" and tended to be likely to not obey orders -- especially when they could not make sense of the fire themselves. Weick concludes that, "what holds organizations in place may be more tenuous than we realize" (638).

Weick also suggests four areas of resilience in organizations to collapses of sensemaking:

  1. Improvisation and bricolage: This is essentially what Dodge did.
  2. Virtual role systems: If other's has simulated Dodge in and the role system position he occupied, they might not have needed to be dependent on him.
  3. The attitude of wisdom: Essentially, an ability to combine previous experience with a set of heuristics and knowledge to evaluate a situation both knowledgeably and flexibly.
  4. Respectful interaction: This depends on both intersubjectivity from interchange and synthesis of meanings among different group members and a transformation of self so that a joint subjectivity develops. The two people who escaped were the other two people who stuck together.

Weick also suggests that structures of resilience can built although he offers little in the way of concrete suggestions.

Theoretical and Practical Relevance

Two years later, Weick published a hugely influential paper in Sensemaking in organizations which has been cited many thousands of times. This article has been cited more than 700 times and is the seminal article in the literature on sensemaking in organizations which continues to be an influential area of research in organizations more broadly.

Howard Wainer's Visual revelations: Graphical tales of fate and deception from Napoleon Bonaparte to Ross Perot discusses the Mann Gulch disaster using graphs; that graphical discussion could be useful for those looking to make sense of the disaster itself.