The practical relevance of investigating extreme contexts seems clear: war, terrorism, gun violence, industrial pollution, air accidents, political controversy, extortion, and computer hacking scandals headline our media reports with increasing frequency. When considering these alongside such natural disasters as floods, draughts, forest fires, and earthquakes, the fragility of our world becomes ever more apparent. Still, even as we may have had our fill of global warming and war-mongering, of divisive “poor man’s idea of a rich man” politicians, Brexit brayers and Europhiles, all indications suggest they are far from done with us.
These developments and events raise important questions around how individuals, organizations, and society might go about preparing for their impact. For organizations, such questions relate to production capacity, resources, consumer markets, and their workforce. What can today’s organizations learn from those that have had to respond to industrial accidents, information leaks, or acts of terrorism in the recent past? What might they learn from organizations whose daily reality revolves around mitigating risk in unusually fragile ecosystems (e.g., disposing of radioactive waste) or regular exposure to risk of injury or death (e.g., fire fighters)?
Some good stuff apparently. Substantial contributions to management and organization studies (MOS) were originally derived from extreme contexts (Bamberger & Pratt, 2010; Bartunek et al., 2006), including from aircraft carriers (Weick & Roberts, 1993), health care actions teams (Faraj & Xiao, 2006), the Bhopal chemical leak (Shrivastava, 1987), the Mann Gulch fire (Weick, 1993), the 1996 Mount Everest expedition (Elmes & Frame, 2008), the Colombia and Challenger shuttle (Starbuck & Farjoun, 2005), the partial nuclear meltdown on Three Mile Island (Perrow, 1984), and collective action on Flight 93 (Quinn & Worline, 2008), among others. Perhaps, it is the heightened awareness of today’s political, economic, and ecological uncertainties that explains a surging interest in extreme contexts. Perhaps, it is an awareness of the cost of tripping up: the Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR, 2015) put a price tag of some $250 billion on the cost of natural disasters during the last decade alone (van de Vegt et al., 2015).
In recent years, significant research interest has emerged to try to extend the early work on high reliability organizing, toward meso-level explanations of teamwork and practices that characterize resilient ways of organizing in a range of settings ranging from hospitals, trauma centers, fire-fighting, police work, high-risk health interventions. Recent work, based on innovative field studies of response organizations has already generated insight on how to minimize error in situations of crisis, how to mount a fast response, improvise and break protocols to meet the unexpected, and how teamwork unfolds in high-risk contexts. Yet –