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"Leading with Eyes Wide Open" Series: #4

[October 10, 2020] by Kathy Scott, PhD, and Bridget Sarikas


This is the fourth and final blog in our series titled “Leading with Eyes Wide Open.” It is for those who want to step up their game as leaders in the crisis, with increased awareness and understanding of the many opportunities and vulnerabilities in our midst, particularly when there are big consequences at stake. Through an understanding of the science of reliability, we can build our effectiveness as well as our resilience during times of disruption.

Leading through the Shock Waves – Building Resilience into Systems and People

It doesn’t require much convincing these days to see and understand that our organizations are, and will continue to be, inundated with shock waves of change for a long time to come. A core competence of leaders, therefore, is leading through and coping with the changes while anticipating the next wave of disruption. This requires a very different approach than leading in stable times. It calls for us to connect with one another in ways we have yet to explore. Looking through a new set of organizational lenses can help us find our way and make that connection to our teams that is often lost when everything is going smoothly.

Over the next several months and years, it will be increasingly important for leaders to spend their time expanding the capability of the workforce to think, anticipate and adapt to whatever is coming at them. We may be stating the obvious here – but it is important in your personal leadership journey to move yourself and your team beyond thinking and on to rapid action. Every employee is needed to be on board and capable of noticing the unusual, doing a quick study, communicating and collaborating so that the organization can quickly act and adapt (Weick & Sutcliffe, 2015). This requires new structures and new energy.

High reliability organizations (HROs) can help us understand a different way of leading in times of crises. HROs understand the importance of reliable performance in the midst of disruption. At the same time, they recognize that the world is full of the unexpected and that it is unrealistic to anticipate every situation that will come their way (we call this – being human). They therefore focus on building resilience into both their systems and people, enhancing their ability to prevent failures, as well as cope and recover quickly when the shock waves come. Sound too good to be true? At times – yes, but if we are committed to this new type of organization the results can be rewarding to both the organization and the team.

HRO Attributes that promote Adaptability and Reliability

HROs share a common set of practices and attributes that can serve as a model for organizations operating under pressure. Presented in the acronym LEADERS (and who doesn’t love a good acronym!) it emphasizes the critical importance of leadership’s accountability as they take their organization through the crisis, building resilience as they go (Adapted from Scott, 2006). These attributes and their descriptions are as follows:

L – Learn from Feedback

E – Effective Teamwork

A – Anticipate the Unexpected

D – Defer to Expertise

E – Extra-sensitive to Operations

R – Resilient System Design

S – Systems Thinkers.

Learn from Feedback. It is important for organizational members to have a good understanding of the consistencies and variations in their organization. This is learned through the attention and cumulative feedback of the individual members -- and yet, too often organizations create constraints that prevent their members from doing just that. Some familiar learning constraints include:

  • A fierce focus on productivity rather than building in adequate time for learning, problem solving and creative adaptation (How often have you or your team been a casualty of this kind of thinking?);

  • Disincentives to reporting mistakes and failures such as shame and blame rather than rapid responses to such reporting to correct the problem (No one wants to put themselves out there for the greater good just to get smacked down);

  • Inadequate or delayed data to guide daily decision making rather than receiving relevant data as close to real time as possible – think about a monthly financial close that lags with what is happening, provides stale information at best, and doesn’t allow you to course correct; and

  • Lack of leadership visibility to the front line rather than clear line of sight through routine rounding with and reporting from those at the point of service. (It’s time to perfect your listening and observational skills – you just might learn something!)

Effective Teamwork. Teams often perform better than individuals because they bring a diverse set of skills and expectations to the table. And because we are all a composition of strengths, talents, inadequacies and biases, teams can act as self-correcting units, compensating for each other’s deficits. Leaders help set the tone through their willingness to collaborate across professions, departments and groups, creating environments that promote and reward open communication and teamwork rather than avoidance, competition or blame. This is a journey and there will be challenges – but you must start somewhere so why not begin with investing in your team’s capabilities. Let the engagement and energy take hold. You’ll be amazed at the results even early on in the process. Then watch the energy build.

Anticipate the Unexpected. There are two sides to this coin – 1) anticipating what could happen and watching for it, and 2) knowing that you cannot possibly anticipate everything so you need to be prepared to adapt quickly to minimize the risks (Hollnagel, 2016). The first requires a heightened awareness of the risks in your midst – leading with eyes wide open – paying attention rather than hoping something goes away or denying it exists (in other words - hiding from reality). The goal here is to proactively see the risks and intervene before the problem actually occurs (prevention). The second side of the coin is about resilience (containment). Through training, practicing and incentivizing the workforce to see and act quickly, the workforce can learn, adapt and absorb the strain, bouncing back faster.

Just checking in - Are you a believer in the HRO model yet? We hope you’re getting there – so let’s keep going.

Defer to Expertise. This requires mastering the ability to alter the typical patterns of deference as the tempo of operations changes and unexpected problems arise. Whoa – what does this mean? Well let’s try and simplify. Leaders move the decision-making locus to those who have the expertise rather than to those of a particular status or rank. The experts are those with the best knowledge of the current situation, those with an understanding of the most salient issues. Decision makers, therefore, migrate up and down the hierarchical structure depending on the issue, accountability, responsibility, uniqueness of the problem and environmental characteristics (Scott, 2006, Weick & Sutcliffe, 2007). Do you have a good feel for the expertise within your team and organization?

Extra-Sensitive to Operations. This starts with paying attention to reality – how the practical, every-day work is really done. How often have you found yourself saying – my CEO has no idea what is really going on? Too often, the higher the leader is on the corporate ladder, the greater the difficulty in seeing the operational risks and realities. Listening is key here as well as rolling up those shirt sleeves and digging into an issue with the team – be an influencer.

Focusing on the wrong things can create a false sense of success, as can surrounding yourself with only those who think like you or tell you what you want to hear. Through a commitment to effective measures, timely dialogue across teams and silos, and active listening, organizational members’ understanding of the complexities are deepened and enriched for early problem identification and action. This is where the magic often happens!

Resilient System Design. As discussed in our recent blog (Scott & Sarikas, Sept 6, 2020), we are all dependent on systems to keep us on track and perform reliably. And because people and systems are never perfect, it is critical to anticipate what can go wrong and build resilience into the systems we depend on. Three strategies (Griffith, 2020) to enhance and manage system performance are:

  • Barriers – obstacles put in place to prevent failures by reducing threats and hazards or by limiting human performance. Examples in the workplace include laws, regulations, access restrictions to confidential information, policies or procedures to guide human behavior, as well as surveillance cameras, warning signs and even fences.

  • Redundancies – parallel working components or backups that serve as checks and balances. Examples include doors with two locks, back-up generators, software backup and autosave features, double checks and second opinions, layers of review and required approvals of transactions and critical reports.

  • Recoveries – additional layers of protection for when barriers and recoveries fail that are there to correct when things go wrong. Examples include reversing agents and antidotes if the wrong medication is administered, internal and external audits when breeches occur, a lifeguard or roadside assistance program, and even counselors or psychologists for emotional recovery.

Systems Thinkers. Our organizations are made of systems of people interacting with other people and technology. The social side of the system, or people interacting with people, is self-organizing, unpredictable and uncontrollable because people have free will and choice all day, every day. How utterly human is this?! While we as leaders sometimes think that if we “impose our will” on others, it will happen, reality tells us this is not reality. A leader’s focus must change from that of “decision-maker” and “compliance manager” to that of “influencer” and “architect” -- one who creates the conditions for others to see the path forward, stay within the guard rails and willingly contribute their best work.

Leading Forward

Leading a group or team forward is a dynamic and messy process during times of significant change. It requires building resilience into our systems and our people. It is an investment in each team members’ capabilities, preparing them to anticipate, monitor, learn and respond to both the disruptions and opportunities in their midst.


“When people tell me “you’re going to regret that in the morning,” I sleep in until noon because I am a problem solver.” ~ Unknown


Griffith, S. (2020, pre-publication). The Hidden Science: Managing Organizational Risk through the Sequence of Reliability. Professional Edition.

Hollnagel, E. (2016). Resilience engineering: Origins. Retrieved from

Scott, K. & Sarikas, B. (2020, September 6). Leading with Eyes Wide Open: Designing Systems for Resilience [Blog post]. Retrieved from

Scott, K. (2010). Managing variance through a high-reliability organization framework. In K. Malloch & T. Porter-O’Grady (2010), Evidence-Based Practice in Nursing and Health Care, 2nd ed. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett.

Weick, K., & Sutcliffe, K. (2015). Managing the Unexpected: Sustaining Performance in a Complex World. (3rd ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Weick, K., & Sutcliffe, K. (2007). Managing the Unexpected: Resilient Performance in an Age of Uncertainty, 2nd ed. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.

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