SWG 14: Organizing in and for Extreme Contexts


Markus Hällgren, Umeå University, Sweden
Daniel Geiger, University of Hamburg, Germany
Linda Rouleau, HEC Montréal, Canada
Mark de Rond, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom
Kathleen M. Sutcliffe, Johns Hopkins University, USA
Samer Faraj, McGill University, Canada
Anja Danner-Schröder, University of Kaiserslautern, Germany

The aim of SWG 14 is to bring together scholars who are interested in theorizing about organizing in and for extreme contexts (see Hällgren et al., 2018; Williams et al., 2018; Bundy et al., 2017 for examples of reviews of related literature).
To fully understand such a complex phenomenon an interdisciplinary approach is necessary. This is reflected in prior research that has engaged organizational theorists, psychologists, sociologists, political scientists and engineers alike. Extreme contexts are environments “where one or more extreme events are occurring or are likely to occur that may exceed the organization’s capacity to prevent and result in an extensive and intolerable magnitude of physical, psychological, or material consequences to – or in close physical or psychosocial proximity to – organization members” (Hannah et al., 2009: 898).

The practical relevance of investigating extreme contexts seems clear: war, terrorism, gun violence, industrial pollution, air accidents, political controversy, extortion, and computer hacking scandals headline our media reports with increasing frequency. When considering these alongside such natural disasters as floods, draughts, forest fires, and earthquakes, the fragility of our world becomes ever more apparent. Still, even as we may have had our fill of global warming and war-mongering, of divisive “poor man’s idea of a rich man” politicians, Brexit brayers and Europhiles, all indications suggest they are far from done with us.

These developments and events raise important questions around how individuals, organizations, and society might go about preparing for their impact. For organizations, such questions relate to production capacity, resources, consumer markets, and their workforce. What can today’s organizations learn from those that have had to respond to industrial accidents, information leaks, or acts of terrorism in the recent past? What might they learn from organizations whose daily reality revolves around mitigating risk in unusually fragile ecosystems (e.g., disposing of radioactive waste) or regular exposure to risk of injury or death (e.g., fire fighters)?
Some good stuff apparently. Substantial contributions to management and organization studies (MOS) were originally derived from extreme contexts (Bamberger & Pratt, 2010; Bartunek et al., 2006), including from aircraft carriers (Weick & Roberts, 1993), health care actions teams (Faraj & Xiao, 2006), the Bhopal chemical leak (Shrivastava, 1987), the Mann Gulch fire (Weick, 1993), the 1996 Mount Everest expedition (Elmes & Frame, 2008), the Colombia and Challenger shuttle (Starbuck & Farjoun, 2005), the partial nuclear meltdown on Three Mile Island (Perrow, 1984), and collective action on Flight 93 (Quinn & Worline, 2008), among others. Perhaps, it is the heightened awareness of today’s political, economic, and ecological uncertainties that explains a surging interest in extreme contexts. Perhaps, it is an awareness of the cost of tripping up: the Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR, 2015) put a price tag of some $250 billion on the cost of natural disasters during the last decade alone (van de Vegt et al., 2015).
In recent years, significant research interest has emerged to try to extend the early work on high reliability organizing, toward meso-level explanations of teamwork and practices that characterize resilient ways of organizing in a range of settings ranging from hospitals, trauma centers, fire-fighting, police work, high-risk health interventions. Recent work, based on innovative field studies of response organizations has already generated insight on how to minimize error in situations of crisis, how to mount a fast response, improvise and break protocols to meet the unexpected, and how teamwork unfolds in high-risk contexts. Yet –

beyond recognition of the need for in-depth studies and favouring a situated practice perspective – theoretical progress has been slow (van der Vegt et al., 2015).

SWG 14 will have three specific aims:

  • The first aim is to move the debate from the particular empirical description of a phenomena towards building theory from extreme contexts.

  • The second aim is to use this theorizing to advance management and organization studies in general. What may once have been a hard line between extreme and conventional contexts has begun to fade research wise, in that recent papers have been keen to bridge settings but also theorize more broadly. For example, Bechky & Okhuysen (2011) draw comparisons between a SWAT team and film crew, a research strategy mimicked by more recent papers (Garud et al., 2011; Haunschild et al., 2015; Morgeson et al., 2015). This development is critical as it provides the basis for empirical and theoretical transferability and generalizability. ECR is becoming an active contributor to a more general interest within MOS in process studies of organizations (Barton & Sutcliffe, 2009; Busby, 2006; Goh et al., 2012; Haunschild et al., 2015). Extreme contexts would seem well suited to advancing process research, given an innate interest in the sequencing of events leading up to catastrophe, and in its subsequent development under severe time constraint.

  • A third aim is to address the methodological innovations that emanated from the challenges and opportunities of research on extreme contexts. Gephart’s (1984) rigorous, systematic analysis of public inquiry-derived texts is perhaps one of the earliest examples of methodological innovation. More recently, scholars have relied on content analysis and grounded theory to theorize extreme contexts (Quinn & Worline, 2008; Shepherd & Williams, 2014; Whiteman & Cooper, 2011). Yet, others relied on action research (Vashdi et al, 2013), video-ethnography (Coreen et al., 2008), film (Godfrey et al., 2012), and self-report methods (Bacharach & Bamberger, 2007; Margolis & Molinsky, 2008). Importantly, we do argue for some consolidation, but we do not foresee, nor call for, a theory of extreme contexts. Rather, we call for more contextualization, more robust theorizing, and more methodological innovation.

Each of the three aims have a significant role in each of the four themes that we plan to discuss during the four-year period:

  • The role of organizing in extreme contexts

  • The role of temporality and coordination in extreme contexts

  • The role of emotions and embodiment in extreme contexts

  • The role of society, institutions and networks in extreme contexts



  • Bacharach, S.B., & Bamberger, P.A. (2007): “9/11 and New York City firefighters’ post hoc unit support and control climates: A context theory of the consequences of involvement in traumatic work-related events.” Academy of Management Journal, 50 (4), 849–868.
  • Bamberger, P.A., & Pratt, M.G. (2010): “Moving forward by looking back: Reclaiming unconventional research contexts and samples in organizational scholarship.” Academy of Management Journal, 53 (4), 665–671.
  • Barton, M.A., & Sutcliffe, K.M. (2009): “Overcoming dysfunctional momentum: Organizational safety as a social achievement.” Human Relations, 62 (9), 1327–1356.
  • Bartunek, J.M., Rynes, S.L., & Ireland, R.D. (2006): “Academy of Management Journal Editors’ Forum: What Makes Management Research Interesting, and Why Does it Matter.” Academy of Management Journal, 49 (1), 9–15.
  • Bechky, B.A., & Okhuysen, G.A. (2011): “Expecting the Unexpected? How Swat Officers and Film Crews Handle Surprises.” Academy of Management Journal, 54 (2), 239–261.
  • Bundy, J., Pfarrer, M.D., Short, C.E., & Coombs, W.T. (2017): “Crises and Crisis Management.” Journal of Management, 43 (6), 1661–1692.
  • Busby, J.S. (2006): “Failure to Mobilize in Reliability-Seeking Organizations: Two Cases from the UK Railway.” Journal of Management Studies, 43 (6), 1375–1393.
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  • Elmes, M., & Frame, B. (2008): “Into hot air: A critical perspective on Everest.” Human Relations, 61 (2), 213–241.
  • Faraj, S., & Xiao, Y. (2006): “Coordination in Fast-Response Organizations.” Management Science, 52 (8), 1155–1169.
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  • Shepherd, D.A., & Williams, T.A. (2014): “Local Venturing as Compassion Organizing in the Aftermath of a Natural Disaster: The Role of Localness and Community in Reducing Suffering.” Journal of Management Studies, 51 (6), 952–994.
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  • Vashdi, D.R., Bamberger, P.A., & Erez, M. (2013): “Can surgical teams ever learn? The role of coordination, complexity, and transitivity in action team learning.” Academy of Management Journal, 56 (4), 945–971.
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  • Whiteman, G., & Cooper, W.H. (2011): “Ecological sensemaking.” Academy of Management Journal, 54 (5), 889–911.
  • Williams, T., Gruber, D., Sutcliffe, K., Shepherd, D., & Zhao, E.Y. (2018): “Organizational Response to Adversity: Fusing Crisis Management and Resilience Research Streams.” Academy of Management Annals, 11 (2), 733–769.

About the Coordinators

Markus Hällgren is Professor of Management and Organization at Umeå School of Business and Economics, Umeå University, Sweden. His main research interest lies within the everyday practice in extreme contexts. Markus has done research on mountaineering expeditions to Mount Everest and K2, hospital emergency departments, zombies, and the police. He leads the research program “Extreme Environments – Everyday Decisions” (www.tripleED.com) and is co-responsible for the “Organizing Extreme Contexts” network (www.organizingextremecontexts.com). His work has been published in outlets such as Academy of Management Annals, European Management Journal, Scandinavian Journal of Management, and International Journal of Project Management.

Daniel Geiger is Professor and Chair for Organization Studies at the University of Hamburg, Germany. He holds a PhD from Freie Universität Berlin and has been Research Fellow of the Advanced Institute of Management Research, United Kingdom .His research focuses on the question how organizations deal with unexpected, extreme events with a particular focus on rules, routines and practices. His research has been published in Organization Science, Organization Studies, and Organization, among others.

Linda Rouleau is Professor of Strategy and Organization Theory at the Management Department of HEC Montréal, Canada. Her research work focuses on strategizing and sensemaking in pluralistic contexts. In the last few years, she has published in peer-reviewed journals such as Academy of Management Review, Organization Science, Accounting, Organization and Society, Journal of Management Studies, Human Relations, etc. She is co-responsible for the GéPS (Strategy as Practice Study Group, http://geps.hec.ca/en/) and is involved in leading an international and interdisciplinary network on “Organizing Extreme Contexts”.

Mark de Rond is Professor of Organizational Ethnography at Judge Business School, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom. A recurring feature in his work is the experience of being human in challenging environments. He has embedded with Boat Race rowing crews, war surgeons in Helmand, adventurers on the river Amazon, and peace activists walking from Berlin to Aleppo. His work has been published in such outlets as Academy of Management Journal, Academy of Management Review, Strategic Management Journal, Organization Science and, in line with the ethnographic tradition, in book form.

Kathleen M. Sutcliffe is a Bloomberg Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore, USA) with appointments in the Carey Business School, the School of Medicine, the School of Nursing, and the Armstrong Institute for Patient Safety. Her research program has been devoted to investigating how organizations and their members cope with uncertainty, team and organizational learning, and how organizations can be designed to be more reliable and resilient. She is currently investigating organizational safety, high reliability and resilience practices in healthcare and in other high hazard industries such as oil exploration and production and wildland firefighting. Kathleen has published widely in management and organization theory and healthcare. In 2012, she was appointed by the National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine to a research panel to study workforce resilience in the Department of Homeland Security. In 2015, she was awarded a Distinguished Scholar Award by the Academy of Management, and in 2016, she received a Bellagio Research Fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation.

Samer Faraj holds the Canada Research Chair in Technology, Management & Healthcare at the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University in Montréal, Canada. He is Head of the research group on “Complex Collaboration” and serves as Director of the faculty’s PhD program. He studies how complex collaboration is sustained and innovation emerges in a variety of settings, such as trauma care, intensive care units, emergency departments, urgent care clinics, first response teams, open source, and online communities.

Anja Danner-Schröder is an Assistant Professor of Management Studies at the University of Kaiserslautern, Germany. Her main research interest is the dynamics of organizational routines in the context of high-reliability organizations. She conducted ethnographic studies with the German Federal Agency for Technical Relief, Technisches Hilfswerk (THW), Firefighting Units and an Emergency Ward of a German state hospital. Moreover, Anja has done research in the earthquake stricken areas of Sendai and Ishinomaki, Japan. Her work has been published in Organization Science, Journal of Management Inquiry, and Journal of Competences, Strategy & Management.