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  Preparing for the Unexpected 

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This paper analyzes complexity in organizations facing threatening environments. Such contexts -fire-fighting, aerospace projects, high-tech research programs, etc.- are characterized by high levels of ambiguity and hazard that may challenge the organization´s very survival. A paradox of these contexts is that although they remain stable, organizations operating within them are often transitory, tied to a single project, and require a wide variety of skills and knowledge.

Transitory project-based organizations are defined as social constructions fostering coordination, sharing, and an innovative and challenging internal environment. Having a single objective with a binary outcome (success or failure), these organizations usually do not last more than two years. When preparing for a turbulent environment, organizations face a low probability of success, high risk for the members, tremendous time constraints, and resource scarcity.

This research is built upon a longitudinal case study of successive attempts to climb Mount Everest by five Chilean expeditions over a period of 12 years (from 1982, when preparations for the first expedition began, to 1996, when the fifth expedition took place). After three failed attempts, the summit was finally reached in 1992 via one of the hardest routes. The fifth expedition, targeting the second highest mountain, K2, was also successful. Each expedition was an independent organization, and structural arrangements as well as participants were different, except for a small permanent core. The research is aimed at exploring the fine-grained dynamics of complex organizing, where small changes account for most of the causes of organizational failure or success. It focuses on how individual and social patterns emerge and evolve within organizations functioning in risky and uncertain environments and how project-based organizations are managed when on the edge.

The authors, Professor José L. Alvarez and Doctoral Candidate Juan S. Montes, offer suggestions about how to design and run effective organizations to cope with menacing environments. In such contexts, bold action, strength of physical, emotional, and intellectual flows, improvisation, communication, agency and entrepreneurship skills, together with strong commitment of the members, are key.

This article is based on:  Organizing on the edge: Heading to Mount Everest
Publisher:  IESE
Year:  1999
Language:  English