Collective improvisation in emergency response

Thanks to John Allspaw for brining this one to my attention!

Collective improvisation in emergency response

This is a paper by Ensieh Roud. They study how training can improve emergency response in the arctic by improving the ability to improvise.

As the author is presumably not an expert in rescue, they reviewed the annual exercises by some of the teams and interviewed several of the responders who have worked in the area. They collected the data over the course of a few years from 2016 to 2019 through “semi-structured interviews and textual analysis of evaluation reports.”

Roud starts with the research question “how can joint training improve the collective improvisation capabilities in emergency response?”

The challenges they face remind much of those faced in our work.

The arctic is not only difficult because the weather, which itself creates time pressure for rescues, but also because the events are fairly rare. This is of course good in the sense that fewer people need rescued there, but it means that it is very difficult, if not impossible to get a lot of experience in that environment directly.

This is much like our world, we can gain experience responding to incidents of course, but as things go right more often than they go wrong, the really big incidents are more rare.

Since things normally go okay, we’re responding and continuing to make changes to keep our systems running, maybe tackling some smaller incidents, but the real whoppers are rare enough that we can’t rely on shadowing or passive forms of gathering experience to build up that muscle.

Though the paper tends to talk about the collective as cross organizational I think some of the structures that tend to arise intra-organizationally can benefit from such a perspective as well.

Roud notes that though many of the cases are similar, the response vary and are all non-routine.

“Improvisation can be a matter of survival because, in a dynamic environment, individual and organizational expertise is futile unless is it put to use in creative ways that match situational demands”

We can practice how we respond, how we communicate, etc. and if you’ve been a reader for long, you likely know that I strongly advocate for this. But in the absence of being able to plan and practice for these events, we need something else, we need to be able to improvise.

“In emergency response, decision-making challenges are not caused by lack of planning, but rather develop because, in fact, the major problem in emergency management is that the team often does not exist formally until the emergency occurs”

This is very true of our world as well. Even if there is a constant team who responds to certain problems, as a disturbance expands and others join the response, it’s increasingly likely that that team has not existed before in that exact way.

The study looks at the challenges of working across multiple organizations. Which at first may not seem like it matches your world at all, but I venture that it does. That at some point, perhaps even recently, you’ve been surprised by something in your own organization. Perhaps you came across a team, a process, a procedure, something where you found people or things working in a way that made the seem like a whole other world.

In many ways, when we work across the organization, we have the same issues to overcome.

What improves improvisation?

For one thing, having flexibility in the command structure. Without that there isn’t room left to improvise.

Beyond that, since direct experience can’t counted on to happen, regular training exercises that include people across the organizations that might respond. Citing David Woods and Eric Hollnagel:

Training exercises increase the abilities of both professional and nonprofessional organizations to contribute to emergency operations in real situations and to improvise if necessary.

These exercises included both hands-on or tabletop types. I’m a big fan of tabletop and gameday practices and encourage anyone wanting to improve their incident response capability to try it out. If you’re not sure how to start just hit reply, I’d be happy to help!

Other variables that were identified were:

  • The role of context complexity
    • This is just a different way of saying that how complex the situation is affects how people work and consequently improvisation. (I discussed Coping with complexity recently).
  • Organizational structure
    • As mentioned earlier, rigid command and control structures are going to limit the room to improvise.
      • Some amount of decentralization is required. To what extent will vary across organizations and their goals.
  • Organizational memory
    • “Greater expertise provides members of the organization with a larger source of knowledge to draw upon when engaging in pattern recognition and mental simulation.”
  • Interorganizational trust
    • Without trust, it can be difficult to work with other organizations and responders, if for example, you feel you can’t trust they have the capabilities to work with you, your team, or organization.
  • Interorganizational communication and information sharing
    • Communication is a huge part of emergency response in general and especially so for improvising during an emergency. Without a way and willingness to share information responders will be limited in the ways they can effectively adapt. This in some part can be influenced by trust.


  • The arctic response structure in many ways mirrors our own world.
    • Because the events there are rare, but of very high consequence with time pressure, it can be difficult to gain experience there directly.
  • Due to the rarity of these incidents it is difficult (if not impossible) to improve by direct experience.
    • Tabletop and other simulation type exercises can help this. Especially when they include people across organizations or suborganizations that may be called to respond.
  • Command and control/centralized structures can be a poor fit for emergency response.
  • Effective communication is a key factor being able to improvise in an emergency.
  • Challenges in responses are rarely caused or solved by advanced planning (past a minimal point).
  • The team that responds to the emergency often doesn’t exist until the emergency does.
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