A High Reliability Organization (HRO) is an organization that operates consistently at high levels of performance while avoiding catastrophes in an environment where accidents can be expected due to risk factors and complexity. HRO theory flowed from research conducted by a group of researchers at the University of California, Berkley in the late 1980s (1). Todd LaPorte, Gene Rochlin, and Karlene Roberts researched three organizations; nuclear aircraft carriers, air traffic Control, and nuclear power operations. While these early efforts concentrated on specific high risk industries, many others sought to extend the concept into more generalised factors for other industries. A turning point came when Karl Weick and Kathleen Sutcliffe reconceptualised the academic literature to establish that there are five mindsets of HROs responsible for maintaining high performance (2). These five mindsets are:

1. Preoccupation with failure

refers to HROs' constant ‘unease’ about potential errors and failures; HROs never relax even when things are going well. They are preoccupied with failures and potential failures, both large and small. They treat every lapse as a symptom that something is wrong in the system – something that could be catastrophic if several of these small errors coincided at one time. HROs never take comfort in the unlikelyhoodof an event.

2. Reluctance to simplify interpretations  

is a HRO trait that leaves them reluctant to accept the easy answer. HROs take deliberate steps to encourage skepticism towards conventional wisdom, instead looking to create richer pictures of the system at large. The collection and analysis of incidents and near misses is informed by a desire to go beyond simplistic 'blame the operator' explanations. HROs are hyper-sensitive to warning signs that something may be wrong and tap diverse perspectives to avoid simplistic ‘causes’.

3. Sensitivity to operations 

refers to a HROs’ attention to the front line, where things get put into action. HROs are intently interested in what actually happens rather than what should be happening. Sensitivity to operations is the ability to obtain and maintain the bigger picture of operations that enables HROs to anticipate effectively potential future failures. In line with this, HROs actively encourage employees to speak up whenever they perceive that things are not right.

4. Commitment to resilience

refers to the ability of HROs to “bounce back” from failures and errors. HROs are highly capable in emergency response and then work determinedly through the recovery phases. HROs understand that incidents are a rich source of insight into the operating system and they relentlessly pursue and embed learnings from negative events. HROs have a systemic approach to building organizational resilience; a collective capacity that goes well beyond just relying on individual resilience.

5. Deference to expertise

HROs recognize that organizational hierarchies are a special point of vulnerability. Because HROs operate in highly complicated environments, they accept that no single individual has all the expertise to make good decisions; there is no such thing as an ‘expert leader’. Instead of expecting their leaders to have all the answers and make unilateral decisions, HROs develop prosocial leadership; the ability to gather individuals with the appropriate expertise regardless of where they sit in the hierarchy and then drive to good decisions based on this diverse base of expertise.

  1. LaPorte, T. R., Roberts, K., & Rochlin, G. I. (1989). High reliability organizations: the research challenge. Institute of Governmental Studies, University of California, Berkeley (April).

  2. Weick, K. E., & Sutcliffe, K. M. (2001). Managing the unexpected (Vol. 9). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

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4-6 November 2019

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