Affiliated Organization

Case Western Reserve University, USA


The test of a first-class mind is the ability to hold two opposing views… at the same time and still retain the ability to function. (F. Scott Fitzgerald)In distributed complex socio-technical systems, risks increasingly originate from multiple sources, affect multiple agents with divergent perspectives and thus become systemic. The traditional simple causal model of risk control and an individual decision-maker orientation is no longer adequate to contain such risks. This paper reports a detailed case study of a highly complex architectural project by Frank Gehry and his firm Gehry Partners, LLC. Gehry and his partners used the 3D representation software Catia tactfully in order to construct radical architectures with dauntingly complex geometric surfaces in spite of increasing systemic risks. Our findings suggest that, in order to successfully combat such risks, organizations rely upon organizing mechanisms characteristic of high reliability organizations (HROs). Our analysis also indicates that creating and maintaining a collective mindfulness is critical for risk control/mitigation in complex socio-technical systems. IT artifacts such as Catia, in combination with other social/technical actors such as skilled workers, contracts and communication protocols, can enable the five cognitive processes underlying collective mindfulness: preoccupation with failure, reluctance to simplify interpretations (multiple perspectives), sensitivity to operations (seeing the big picture of operation in the moment), commitment to resilience (ability to bounce back from errors and cope with surprises via improvisation), and underspecfication of structures (organized anarchy via fluid decision-making).