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The collapse of sensemaking in organizations: the Mann Gulch disaster

Author(s): Karl E. Weick
Year Published: 1993

The death of 13 men in the Mann Gulch fire disaster, made famous in Norman Maclean's Young Men and Fire, is analyzed as the interactive disintegration of role structure and sensemaking in a minimal organization. Four potential sources of resilience that make groups less vulnerable to disruptions of sensemaking are proposed to forestall disintegration, including improvisation, virtual role systems, the attitude of wisdom, and norms of respectful interaction. The analysis is then embedded in the organizational literature to show that we need to reexamine our thinking about temporary systems, structuration, nondisclosive intimacy, intergroup dynamics, and team building.

The purpose of this article is to reanalyze the Mann Gulch fire disaster in Montana described in Norman Maclean's (1992) award-winning book Young Men and Fire to illustrate a gap in our current understanding of organizations. l want to focus on two questions: Why do organizations unravel? And how can organizations be made more resilient? Before doing so, however, l want to strip Maclean's elegant prose away from the events in Mann Gulch and simply review them to provide a context for the analysis.

Citation: Weick, Karl E. 1993. The collapse of sensemaking in organizations: the Mann Gulch disaster. Administrative Science Quarterly 38 (4), p. 628.
Topic(s): Human Dimensions of Fire Management, Human Factors of Firefighter Safety, Decisionmaking & Sensemaking, High Reliability Organizing, Leadership, Organizational Learning & Innovation
Ecosystem(s): None
Document Type: Book or Chapter or Journal Article
NRFSN number: 15592
Record updated: Sep 8, 2020