It’s impossible to predict everything that can go wrong. Fortunately, new research on organizational behaviour in fast-paced work environments has revealed a set of strategies that can improve individual reactions and overall group performance.
In a new study published in the Academy of Management Journal, researchers from California and Utah used strategic interviews and direct observation to find similarities between the ways police SWAT teams and film production crews cope with surprises.
Breaking into a location, the SWAT team found more suspects than expected. In response, the lead officers changed their primary role from trying to reach the furthest corner of the location to covering areas and suspects as they advanced.
During a scene in which an actor was “slaughtered” and fell into a hot tub on the top floor of a mansion, the crew forgot to account for displacement and the tub overflowed. All the scenes set to be filmed that evening with the hot tub were rescheduled for the following day. The electricians shifted the power to the generators and they shot a different scene in the dry living room.
The SWAT team was about to use explosives to blow out a door. The lead officer checked the door handle, found it open, and the team switched to a “stealth entry” right away.
They found that having the ability to shift people between roles, shuffle the ordering of tasks in a project, and deviate from normal routines was key to successfully navigating unexpected changes.
Researchers compared a SWAT team to film sets (including a horror movie) in order to assess how staff coped with surprises. wolfgangfoto/flickr
Beth Bechky, the lead author and an associate professor of management at the University of California, Davis, is an expert on interactions in the workplace. She observed four different film projects, with a combined total of 310 staff and more than $100 million in financing, in addition to conducting a number of interviews and sifting through a mountain of prior research. The findings are significant because they offer a new framework and new language for talking about organizational and team structures.
Bechky and her co-author recommend three ways that innovative and entrepreneurial teams can promote “organizational bricolage”—a process of sharing knowledge and workflow expectations to cope with limited resources and continue effectively.
First, they should draft agreement. The SWAT team did this by jointly developing a rudimentary plan of action, which got everyone on the same page and allowed for some flexibility in execution.
Training, group knowledge, and role shifting is important to organizational bricolage. OregonDOT/flickr
Secondly, they should reinforce and elaborate task activities. Sharing knowledge between team members while supporting best practices and eliminating inefficiencies is key to success. At a movie set, the unit manager did this by explaining industry norms to a group of production assistants.
Finally, they should build cross-member expertise. Consistent and continual training programs, which make sure that everyone has a rudimentary understanding of one another’s skills and duties, allow for role flexibility and task efficiency.
While most of us don’t work in Hollywood or with automatic weaponry, we should still learn to improvise effectively. Proper human resource management means having a system and a team that’s able to cope with unexpected absences, malfunctioning technology, and new competitors.
Source: Bechky, B. & Okhuysen, G. (2011). “Expecting the unexpected? How SWAT officers and film crews handle surprises.” Academy of Management Journal 54(2). 239–261.