A standing army is one of the oldest and sustained forms for an organisational solution to a complex need. Actions of thousands of individuals are coordinated in the pursuit of a highly dangerous “mission”. Over the hundreds of years many lessons were hard won – and as easily forgotten. Many civil organisations including businesses look to the military in their search for answers to organisational issues.
“Friendly Fire” by Scott A. Snook is full of rich learning for anyone who leads or tries to understand organisations. In a unique way he combines individual, group and organisational level analyses to make sense of why on April 14, 1994 two U.S. Air Force F-15 fighters shot down two U.S. Army Black Hawk Helicopters over Northern Iraq. In this friendly fire incident 26 peace keepers were killed. Subsequent investigations could find no single culprit, no one flaw which caused the tragedy.
Incidents like the one in Iraq have their counterparts in many organisations. Especially if you work in or with high reliability organisations Scott’s book is a must read. Incident investigations nowadays involve large groups of deep subject matter experts trawling through huge volumes of empirical data. More often than not these investigations result in conventional explanations such as “human errors”, equipment failures, lack of experience or training and generic “system” problems like insufficient resources. These answers help to satisfy our desire to regain control after something has fundamentally gone wrong in an otherwise highly reliable organisation. However, many times they do not help to prevent organisations from repeating similar mistakes in the future.
Scott understands to lay out the complexity of today’s multilevel, multi-task, organisational systems based on a concrete and well-researched example. What he achieves in his investigation – without ever preaching it – is for the reader to realise that organisations are in their essence social systems. Failing to take into account how humans operate individually, in groups and in formal organisations can lead to in-effective and potentially lethal solutions.
With today’s organisations trying to accomplish their missions in an ever more complex environment “Friendly Fire” is a book, which can help you to save lives. While some believe that accidents are inevitable it is the responsibility of organisational leaders to do everything they can to prevent them. Scott A. Snook’s “Friendly Fire” provides powerful insights on how to do that while refraining to present easy fixes.