This morning I started writing a 6:00 AM, writing three 18-minute paragraphs separated by two-minute breaks, using yesterday’s key sentences to define each task. Here’s the result:
- On August 4, 1949, lightning started a fire on the southern ridge of Mann Gulch.* The next afternoon, a crew of smokejumpers parachuted in, landing at the top of the gulch. They collected their gear and decided to fight the fire from below, with their backs to the river. While they were hiking down towards the river, following the northern slop of the gulch, the fire jumped over to their side. But it was outside of their line of sight when it happened, so they saw it coming towards them too late. They dropped their tools and tried to outrun it, but it was moving too fast, gaining on them quickly. At the last moment, Dodge lit the grass in front of him on fire and ordered the men to lie down down in on the burnt ground. They thought he was crazy and ignored his orders, continuing up the slope, away from the fire. Dodge lay down, and after the fire had passed, he rose from the ashes of his escape fire to find that his men were dead.
- The received view in organization studies is that the Mann Gulch disaster resulted from a collapse of sensemaking. In an influential analysis from 1993, Karl Weick proposed to shift our analytical focus from the decisions that were made about the fire, to the process that formed the crew’s understanding of their situation. Weick argued that the crew lacked structure and leadership, and at the crucial moment, when they should have obeyed the order to lie down in the escape fire, the men panicked. The crew, he argued, held on to a “stubborn belief” that they would have the fire under control by morning, causing them to ignore signs that their situation was changing. This produced a “cosmology episode”, in which the world become unrecognizable to them and this, in turn, ultimately decided their fate. Today, this is the generally held view: the disaster was characterized by “multiple failures of leadership” resulting in an “interelated collapse of structure and sensemaking” (Weick 1993). Indeed, the taciturn foreman, Wagner Dodge, is often said to have lacked what Weick called an “attitude of wisdom”.
- In this paper, I show that sensemaking did not play a significant role in the death of the smokejumpers in Mann Gulch. I present a re-analysis of the events described in Norman Maclean’s 1992 book Young Men and Fire, which had also been the source of Weick’s “data”. I carry out what John Van Maanen (1995) called an “allegoric breaching” of our received views about the disaster. On my reading, the crew abandoned its belief that it would have the fire out by morning before it began to move towards the river. Maclean explicitly says that the men “did not panic” and shows that Dodge had a good sense of the danger they were in, attempting to get his men out of harm’s way. His escape fire, finally, was a spontaneous improvisation with which the men had no prior experience and therefore could not have made sense of in the moment. This reading should get us to rethink our assumptions about the importance of sensemaking in Mann Gulch specifically, and crisis situations more generally. Mann Gulch was a tragedy that could not have been prevented by greater wisdom on the part of the men who died.
This is very much a first draft; there are lots of things I may do differently when I rewrite these paragraphs later in the process. But that’s not something I’m going to worry about now. Next, I will write “paragraph 39”: the first paragraph of the conclusion, the penultimate paragraph of the paper. Its key sentence is contained in paragraph 3: “Sensemaking did not play a significant role in the death of the smokejumpers in Mann Gulch.” I will then write 2 paragraphs from each of the background, theory and methods sections, 6 paragraphs of analysis, and 2 paragraphs of discussion. That’s 18 paragraphs over 6 hours of work. It will give me a good sketch of the first draft. Then I’ll fill in the remaining 22 paragraphs.
It’s worth pointing out that the structure of the entire paper is contained in the introduction. In the background section I will talk about the dangerous work that smokejumpers do and why they do it. In the theory section I will talk about sensemaking and how it is supposed to explain failure in critical situations. In the methods section, I will talk about “allegoric breaching” and the use of a non-fiction book like Norman Maclean’s Young Men and Fire as “data” for analysis. In the analysis, I will support my assertion that the crew did not hold a “stubborn belief”, did not panic, and did not lack wisdom in its attitude. Finally, in the discussion section I will argue that sensemaking is often allowed to explain too much when we study tragedies like the Mann Gulch disaster.
* You may have noticed that this is not the key sentence from yesterday. In fact, the key sentence was to a certain extent “written out” out of this paragraph, which sometimes happens. If I was reading this paragraph trying to find its key sentence I would say, “In August of 1949 some smokejumpers were killed in Mann Gulch,” which is pretty close. It is constructed from the opening and closing words of the paragraph. The paragraph tells the story of how the men died; it elaborates (rather than supporting or defending) the key sentence.