By Published On: June 19, 20220 Comments

Karl Weick, whose thinking I’ve always appreciated, has a piece appearing in the May-June issue of the Harvard Business Review. It is titled “Prepare Your Organization to Fight Fires,” and it is very relevant, I believe, to those interested in why total quality management (TQM) meets with spotty success, why business process reengineering (BPR) seems to have come and gone, and, in general, why executives seem caught up in a never-ending search for silver bullets.

Weick’s piece is, of all things, a book review. And, it is of a book published in 1992. Adding to what I see as a mystery, an earlier version of Weick’s review was published in Administrative Science Quarterly in 1993.

So why would the HBR publish an already-published book review of a book now four years old?

I think the reason is that Weick has put his finger on two issues with which we have all been grappling: the collapse of organization, and the failure of leadership in the face of a threat-laden and uncertain environment.

Weick’s review is of Norman MacLean’s book, Young Men and Fire, published in 1992 after MacLean’s death in 1990. MacLean was writing about a tragic incident at Mann Gulch, Montana, in 1949, in which 13 young men, professional fire fighters, lost their lives to a forest fire. They died because their organization collapsed and thus their leader could not lead.

MacLean was pursuing the answer to this question: “What should the structure of a small group be when its business is to meet sudden danger and prevent disaster?”

“There are larger lessons in this tragedy for those whose job it is to make sense of environments that suddenly change from the expected to the unexpected, the inconceivable, or the incomprehensible. To point the way to safety in the face of surprise, leaders today need to develop resilient groups that are capable of four things: improvisation, wisdom, respectful interaction, and communication.”

Fred Nickols (

Apply The Principles To Your Congregation…

Those concerned with congregational health will not only look to the internal, relational, spiritual and system dynamics, but they will also have to consider–and internalize–those four things mentioned above: improvisation, wisdom, respectful interaction, and communication.

In order to apply these to your congregation, consider the following questions:

1) What commonalities do these four factors share? (Not rooted in fear; facilitate and encourage healthy change; they communicate trust, teamwork, and the capacities to grow, transform and achieve together; etc.)

2) What are the significances of each of these four:

a) Improvisation: (Asks: “In what ways can we build on–and improve–our past and present to make a brighter and more effective future?”)

b) Wisdom: (Assumes all the knowledge is not “spent.” “We can dream, share, invent, implement, learn from failures, and confidently work from heightened insight.”)

c) Respectful Interaction: (Based on healthy, grace-based relationships which can talk, trust and feel…even when disagreements or anxieties arise. Ideas may be accepted or rejected…but love will always be extended to people in a respectful manner, even when they disagree).

d) Communication: (At all costs the church and its leaders must not work in secret or specialize in surprises!)


3) What are some examples of the breakdown of these items in your congregation? What factors led to those breakdowns?


4) What strategies does your congregation currently have to incorporate and encourage healthier levels and degrees of improvisation, wisdom, respectful interaction and communication?


5) In what ways can you and your congregation rely upon God to see these four principles implemented in your congregation?

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Karl Weick is the Rensis Likert Collegiate Professor of Organizational Behavior at the University of Michigan’s School of Business in Ann Arbor.

Article above reprinted by permission by Fred Nickols. Application added by Thomas Fischer, Director of Ministry Health, LLC.

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