It should come as no surprise that Kathleen M. Sutcliffe, a frequently published expert on the ways organizations handle surprises, was in the first group of Bloomberg Distinguished Professors named by Johns Hopkins University this year.
The new professorships, made possible by a $350 million gift from JHU alumnus and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, aim to promote interdisciplinary scholarship across the university. Sutcliffe, of course, has a specialty, and is a leading figure in her area – organization theory – but she has regularly applied her expertise during a three-decade academic career to a range of industries and occupations that include health care, wildland firefighting, and oil and gas exploration. Sutcliffe gets interdisciplinary.
Like the five other Bloomberg professors appointed this year (Nobel Prize winners Peter Agre and Carol Greider among them), she will split her time between two Johns Hopkins divisions. In her case, that means being based at the Carey Business School’s Harbor East campus while also working at the School of Medicine in East Baltimore, particularly within the Armstrong Institute for Patient Safety and Quality. A total of 50 Bloomberg professors are to be appointed by mid-2018.
Sutcliffe arrived at the Carey School this past summer after 20 years at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. She served there primarily as a faculty member but was also the associate dean for faculty development and research from 2006 to 2010. Recently, she sat down with ONE to talk about the Bloomberg professorship, her work on organizational reliability, resilience, and “managing the unexpected,” and how her youthful experiences in her native Alaska as a crab boat crew member and an Alaska pipeline construction worker influenced her career as an academic researcher.
What do you see as your role and responsibility as one of the first Bloomberg professors?
Michael Bloomberg obviously had an intention when he created this professorship. I think he understands that the world’s big problems are not going to be solved by individual professors talking only to other people in their disciplines, that big problems of the world are more complex than individual disciplines. And so, as I understand the position, the university is interested in trying to reorient faculty members’ scholarship in ways that could have a deeper and wider impact.
The Bloomberg professorship also involves the idea of an allegiance to the entire university. I’m aware of the concept of creating “one university” here at Johns Hopkins, and I think it’s a great idea. This professorship can play a part in bringing about that kind of cohesion.
What will be the logistics, in terms of time you will spend at Carey and at the School of Medicine?
My primary office will be here at Carey. I’m already creating relationships with the School of Medicine and Armstrong Institute. My projects span both worlds, so it’s not as if I’ll do only one type of work at each campus. I’m an organization theorist who is comfortable in multiple contexts, and one of them happens to be health care. But the things that I study are very transferrable and relevant to organizations in many different contexts.
Your expertise and interests, in fact, touch on various areas that are taught at Carey – management, the business of health care, enterprise risk. Will your role here be focused on one of those areas more than the others, or will it embrace all of them?
“Becoming more alert and aware, discerning when we need to make modifications, is what organizing is all about, and that’s what I look at in my work.”
I see my role as embracing different areas. That’s why I was really excited about this position. I am an organization theorist, and very interested in theoretical and empirical work, but at the same time I’ve always felt it’s important to make a real difference through my research, to have that wide impact I mentioned before.
I never imagined when I started my work on managing the unexpected that it would be relevant to so many people all across the world. It seems to speak to people, because it helps them feel more effective in conditions of uncertainty, ambiguity, and change. All managers, supervisors, leaders, and especially those of us on the frontlines are going to encounter surprises. All organizations are facing increased competition, dynamism, volatility, ambiguity, uncertainty, and complexity. Becoming more alert and aware, discerning when we need to make modifications, is what organizing is all about, and that’s what I look at in my work.
How should an organization best prepare itself to survive the unexpected and perhaps even thrive after it?
In Managing the Unexpected [the book co-authored by Sutcliffe and Karl E. Weick, with a third edition forthcoming], we talk about five key principles of a mindful infrastructure. Those are being preoccupied with failure so you are thinking about how things can go wrong and are better prepared if they do go wrong; avoiding oversimplification of your interpretations so you’ve got a better picture of what you face and are not leaning on the familiar and putting the organization on autopilot; being sensitive to what’s happening here and now, and making small adjustments so small problems don’t blow up into major ones; developing resilience so you can cope and bounce back; and having fluid decision structures, taking advantage of the different areas of expertise in your organization so decisions can migrate to people who can best solve particular problems.
“Preoccupied with failure” has a slightly anxious ring to it. Can you define what you mean by that phrase?
I’ve heard that from others. We’re glad it has such a ring since it can increase alertness and disrupt complacency. It’s not to suggest that people become paranoid or go into analysis paralysis. If we’re put on alert concerning possible failures, then this could make people more willing to give voice to the small irregularities that bother them. The pre-procedural briefing before a surgery is an example of being preoccupied with failure. It’s an opportunity to say, “Is there anything we’re worried about or should be worried about before we start this procedure?” That’s really what that phrase is getting at. I think pre-procedural briefings should be mandatory in a variety of organizational contexts, not just in medicine.
You’ve studied high-risk fields such as wildland firefighting and oil and gas exploration. What drew you to those areas?
That kind of work is part of my own background. When I got out of college, I was a laborer on the Alaska pipeline, doing construction. I also was on a crab fishing boat for a while in the Aleutian Islands in Alaska, doing the type of work you see on the Deadliest Catch TV show. I think those jobs and experiences, along with being a nurse practitioner in Alaska, have helped me do research better, because they required deep interactions with all kinds of people and organizations. So I was able to observe many different things and make inferences about what was going on.
What does your teaching schedule look like?
I’ll be teaching a course called Facilitating Strategic Change for Carey’s MBA program in spring 2015. It will look at the idea that a major job for the people in an organization, especially for the people managing it, is implementing change. So the course will examine how to give people a toolkit and a set of ideas about how change can be made more effectively and more systematically. People don’t realize that you can do it in a systematic way, and that it takes thought and practice. One of the key things to realize is the emotional aspect of change. It involves getting people on board, shaping the path, helping people understand where you want them to go and how they can get there in a more efficacious way.
Speaking of managing change and shaping a new path: You’ve lived and worked primarily in the West and Midwest, and now, coming to this newly created position at Johns Hopkins, you’re living and working on the East Coast for the first time. How is that going so far?
I am energized by the change, moving from living in a small Midwest college town to living in a major city with both its history and proximity to other great cities; moving from the Great Lakes to the Chesapeake and Atlantic Ocean. The drive from Ann Arbor through northern Maryland was beautiful. It is a little noisier here, I will say. [Laughs] That’s the one big difference I notice between Ann Arbor and Baltimore. But I’m very excited to be here and thrilled about my new position and, most of all, my new colleagues.