Sensemaking in Worker Cooperatives

For my theory class, I am currently reading a classic article on sensemaking in organizations: “The Collapse of Sensemaking in Organizations: The Mann Gulch Disaster” by Karl Wieck

The article reviews Norman McLean’s “Young Men and Fire” and theorizes about the breakdown of organization among the 15 smoke jumpers that led to the death of 13 of them.

It struck me as a timely article as many of our co-operatives have started to embrace a new economic environment that fundamentally changes our sense of place in the world. This is especially true in states that have proceeded to follow in the steps of, to use Naomi Klein’s excellent word, “disaster capitalism” or the “shock doctrine.” Just as the firefighters in 1949 found themselves in a situation that no longer made sense with their expectations, the changes to the role of government and its relation to the economy have created a new reality that needs different perspectives. There is a key paragraph in Wieck’s article that I find especially pertinent, it references one of the key assumptions of the smokejumpers that the fire being attacked was a small brush fire that could be easily contained by 10:00 am the next morning–it turned out, due to winds, weather and terrain to be something much bigger:

“The crew’s stubborn belief that it faced a 10:00 fire is a powerful reminder that positive illusions (Taylor, 1989) can kill people. But the more general point is that organizations can be good at decision making and still falter. They falter because of deficient sensemaking. The world of decision making is about strategic rationality. . .Sensemaking is about contextual rationality. . . People in Mann Gulch did not face questions like where should we go, when do we take a stand, or what should our strategy be? Instead, they faced the more basic, the more frightening feeling that their old labels were no longer working. They were outstripping their experience and were not sure either what was up or who they were.”

This caused paralysis, fear, and ultimately very bad decisions by individuals which ended their lives. Our co-operatives are not facing forest fires, however, we are facing a changing economy. Wieck’s lesson is that we need to do more than follow through the rote of strategic planning. We need to engage in collective sensemaking as well. As we get pushed out of our comfort zones, we need to try to re-align our senses.

I think that this is something that worker co-operatives may have an advantage in dealing with. We tend to, as Roy Morrison quotes the Mondragon members, “build the road as we travel.” We have, as a movement, a culture of innovating, making do, and generally trying to negotiate an economy that doesn’t really get us. To do so, however, means resisting the tendency towards conservatism and isomorphism within our respective industries. “Our co-operatives must primarily serve those who see them as bastions of social justice and not to those that see cooperatives as refuges or safe places for their conservative spirit” ( Don José María Arizmendiaretta, Reflections, 461)

About John McNamara

John spent 26 years with Union Cab of Madison Cooperative and currently helps develop co-ops in the Pacific Northwest. He holds a Ph.D. in Business Administration and Masters in Management: Co-operatives and Credit Unions from Saint Mary's University.
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1 Response to Sensemaking in Worker Cooperatives

  1. Pingback: How Do We Sense Make Of It All | The Workers' Paradise

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