Karl Weick – GAS Theory
“When we reduce complexity to simplicity we depart from reality.”
Four decades ago in an organizational theory class at the Marriott School at Brigham Young University we were introduced to the work of Karl Weick. One of the most useful models (for dealing with complexity) that I learned from Karl’s writing is his “General – Accurate – Simple” Model.1
It goes like this:
If you create a conceptual model it can be general, accurate, and simple. But you only get two of the three. No conceptual model can have all three characteristics.
Let’s examine what that means.
General and Simple
A model can be “General and Simple.” An example of that kind of model is the Organizational Change Model created by John Kotter.2 Doctor Kotter did extensive research (interviews, observations, examinations of records and documents) of many organizational change projects and from the body of data teased out a set of principles to use in engaging in the organizational change process in organizations in general.
Here are the 8 steps that Kotter outlines for creating large scale organizational change:
- Establishing a Sense of Urgency
- Creating a Guiding Coalition – Build Guiding Teams
- Developing a Vision and Strategy
- Communicating the Change Vision – Building Buy-In
- Empowering & Enabling Broad-Based Action (Remove Barriers)(Alignment & Integration)
- Generating Short-Term Wins (Visible, Timely, Meaningful)
- Consolidating Gains and Producing More Change
- Anchoring New Approaches in the Culture
I have been involved in many discussions with clients and fellow consultants about how they use Kotter’s model. Many people express frustration that Kotter’s work does not give them direction for their specific organization and the organization’s specific marketplace. The discussions then usually moves to how we can use Kotter’s model as a general guide, but that we must develop hybrid conceptual models that extend Kotter’s model to deal with the specific circumstances and dynamics of their organization in their specific market situation.
So as a leader or consultant you need to be a model builder, not just a model user.
By the way, in the second book, The Heart of Change, Dan Cohen and John Kotter give more specific case examples of organizational change that add valuable meat to the bones of the model introduced in the first book.
That is a general simple model. It gives you general guidance, but the simplicity of it departs from the reality that you face in your organization. So you have to be a builder of conceptual models that will fit the specifics of the situation you are grappling with.
Accurate and Simple
Over the last several decades I have been involved in numerous survey research projects and incident investigations in organizations. As we have fondled, massaged, and examined the data from these surveys and investigations we have developed accurate simple models of the specific dynamics of what is happening in these organizations.
And example of an investigation in which such a model was developed is from Chapter 5 of the Chief Counsel’s Report on the Macondo Blowout in the Gulf of Mexico.3 The title of the chapter is “Overarching Failures of Management.” It serves as an accurate and simple conceptual model of what went wrong on Macondo:
The management breakdown at Macondo affected many of the operational aspects of designing and drilling the well. The Chief Counsel‘s team observed at least the following management failures:
- Ineffective leadership at critical times;
- Ineffective communication and siloing of information;
- Failure to provide timely procedures;
- Poor training and supervision of employees;
- Ineffective management and oversight of contractors;
- Inadequate use of technology; and
- Failure to appropriately analyze and appreciate risk.
Ultimately, the companies placed undue reliance on timely intervention and human judgment in light of their failure to provide individuals with the information, tools, and training necessary to be effective.
That simple and accurate statement of the management failures is based on detailed specific information gleaned from interviews, reports, direct examination of data, observations, and careful deliberation. It is the product of an intense investigation and a thorough analysis of data. It remains grounded in and most useful for understanding this specific incident. It is very useful for follow up to that incident and prevention of a reoccurrence of such an incident in the future in that specific kind of offshore drilling operation.
It also might be a useful model for a thought experiment about leadership and management in general. But to take it as a general prescription for how to manage is not wise. It should be used with extreme caution and skepticism when applying it to situations that are not very similar to the original investigation.
General and Accurate in Healthcare (and Elsewhere)
I have been involved in healthcare projects for 35 years. In that period of time the field of healthcare has become increasingly dynamic and complex. When I was involved in a healthcare project in the early 80’s I crafted this couplet in response to the situation we were encountering then:
“When we reduce complexity to simplicity we depart from reality.”
And that was before the advent of computers, technology, big data, data science, robotics, machine learning, and advanced scientific and medical research, as we know them today. And our society and regulatory and political environments were much simpler then. And the people issues were much simpler then.
One of the predominant models being used in healthcare today is the Merger and Acquisition General-Simple Model of building healthcare (and other) institutions. One of the core underlying assumptions of this model is that by merging organizations together we can create a healthcare system that creates efficiencies through centralization, standardization, and scale that will make the large system work in the complex, dynamic, competitive healthcare marketplace.
The problem with this model is that by the simple solution of standardization and centralization you cover up and make invisible the compelling needs of the individual hospitals, clinics, and other entities that make up the healthcare system. Efforts to brand and market the large institution cover up the need to connect each hospital to its geographic market that is competing for patients and healthcare workers. So the hospitals (and other entities) often languish. Centralizing education allows the creation of large system competencies and covers up the need for specific learning interventions at the unique local entity level.
And it goes on with each element of the new centralized, standardized organization. Every move toward centralization and standardization has unintended consequences that are weak signals that are often missed to the detriment to the individual entities within the larger system. And those detriments will eventually accrue to the detriment of the whole system.
When we reduce the complexity of healthcare organizations and marketplaces through the simplicity of the merger and acquisition model of creating large healthcare institutions we depart from the reality of the dynamic, complex, competitive healthcare marketplace.
Given our increasingly complex environment we need more robust general-accurate models that do not reduce or simplify complexity and crush the complexity so that we cannot see it or grapple with it. We need to embrace complexity as the coin of the realm in which we must trade in our modern global society.
One model that edges towards that standard of being a general accurate model that embraces the complexity of our modern healthcare environment is the Value Design for Healthcare Ecosystems Model developed by Chris Lawer of Umio.4
The model is built from an ecosystem level perspective and embraces the complexity of the multiple interconnected processes that propel healthcare along.
I recommend that you examine Chris’ model and approach.
Another firm that is dealing with healthcare complexity is the Spring Network5 led by Stu Winby. They have done organization redesign in several healthcare institutions that have not crushed complexity. They have embraced complexity and helped their clients navigate that complexity.
I recommend that you examine Stu’s model and approach.
Both of these men are personal friends whom I respect as outstanding contributors to the field of organization design. I do not have any formal institutional or financial interest in their businesses.
Both of their models and approaches are general-accurate models and approaches. They embrace and grapple with complexity. Do not reduce it to simplicity. And stay close to reality.
Weick, Karl, The Social Psychology of Organizing, Second Edition, Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA, 1979, page 36.
Kotter, John P., “Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail,” Harvard Business Review, March-April 1995, pages 59-67.
Kotter, John P., Leading Change, Harvard Business School Press, Boston, Massachusetts, 1996. (ISBN 0-87584-747-1)
Kotter, John P. and Dan S. Cohen, The Heart of Change: Real-Life Stories of How People Change Their Organizations, Harvard Business School Press, Boston, Massachusetts, 2002. (ISBN 1-57851-254-9)
“Macondo: The Gulf Oil Disaster,” Chief Counsel’s Report, National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, 17 February 2011
“Overarching Failures of Management,” Chapter 5, Chief Counsel’s Report, National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, 17 February 2011
Chris Lawer, Umio®: Value Design for Health Ecosystems
Spring Networks & Stu Winby: