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Integration of HOP and Reliability Principles

Recently Teresa Swinton, the Founder and Owner of Paradigm Human Performance, gave a presentation to her neighbours in the Plymouth Science Park, Plymouth, UK, and titled it Managing Operational Performance During COVID-19. There are many gems and valuable nuggets in the presentation, but one struck a chord with me when she mentioned Deference to Expertise, a principle of High Reliability Organizing. You would be well-served if you were to view the entire presentation here:

Principles are like truths. They are an accurate way to determine the foundations of our thinking.


Human and Organizational Performance (HOP), through decades of academic research and professional practice, has produced principles that hold true across many different socio-technical industries. Many people work in high-consequence occupations, where when people make mistakes they, or others, could be killed, maimed, or seriously injured.

Human Performance Principles are building blocks whose points we believe are true and make up the foundational thinking of our philosophy. We believe the 5 Principles of Human Performance seem to be consistently woven throughout all of our thinking, learning, and actions to intentionally enhance operational stability, reliability, and improvement in our organizations. I do not number these principles because some might assume that one is more important than another in an ordered list.

The 5 Principles of Human Performance:

  • Error is normal. Even the best people make mistakes.
  • Blame fixes nothing.
  • Learning and Improving are vital. Learning is deliberate.
  • Context influences behaviour. Systems drive outcomes.
  • How you respond to failure matters. How leaders act and respond counts.

(Conklin, 2019)

Operational Reliability

High-Reliability Organizing (HRO) has been an area of research for Karleen Roberts', PhD, team from UC Berkeley since just after the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident in 1979. Organizing for high reliability in volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous and sometimes threatening (VUCA-T) environments, has been researched for decades. Many are learning the lessons available, even integrating knowledge and ideas from multiple sources. These organizations are not problem-free. But they have far fewer problems than others in the same types of business because they not only build unique structural features but also think and act differently.

Karl Weick and Kathleen Sutcliffe, PhDs from the University of Michigan Business School, have published a series of books titled Managing The Unexpected. They are about organizations, expectations, and mindfulness. Their basic message is that "expectations can get you into trouble unless you create a mindful infrastructure that continually does all of the following:

  • Tracks small failures
  • Resists oversimplification
  • Remains sensitive to operations
  • Maintains capabilities for resilience
  • Defers to expertise

(Weick & Sutcliffe, 2001, p. 10; 2007, p. 2)

Principles Used Together

Each of these approaches to performance and reliability is often understood, implemented, and continually practised separately, but even better together as Teresa has recommended in her presentation when she mentioned Deference to Expertise.

Deference to Expertise is a very succinct way to describe the operating dynamics involved with bringing smart people together to collaborate, communicate and work well together in problem-solving, learning endeavours.

"HRO's don't just assign a problem to an expert and move on. Hierarchal patterns of authority exist in HROs, as they do in most traditional organizations. During routine operations, members of typical organizations demonstrate deference to the powerful, the coercive, and the senior... As an unexpected event begins to materialize, someone somewhere sees early warning signs. But the first to know tend to be lower in rank, invisible, reluctant to speak up, and may not even realize what they are seeing is important. What HROs have mastered is the ability to alter these typical patterns of deference as the tempo of operations increases and unexpected problems arise...Expertise is not necessarily matched with Hierarchal position, so organizations that live or die by their hierarchy are seldom in a position to know all about a problem" (Weick & Sutcliffe, 2007, p. 74).

Expertise is relational, an assemblage of knowledge, experience, learning and intuitions that is seldom embodied in a single individual. To defer to expertise is a practice of heedful interrelating with people that provide contributions subordinated to the system's well-being. Often knowledgeable people self-organize into ad hoc, informal networks to provide expert problem-solving.

Action Item

Form up a study group around the books mentioned above and discuss them with your business in mind. Get to know each other. Find out about the strengths and expertise that each person has. Put together an action plan that uses HOP and HRO principles to address an issue most of your group wants to work on. You don't have to solve world hunger in your first experiment. Build something good together. Maybe something that helps the business serve the community it's located in. Then take on something else with that small success under your belt. Build relationships across sections of your organization, or neighbourhoods in your town, or both.

If you would like to discuss these ideas and receive some help with the implementation of these concepts, please feel free to contact the author of this blog via email at:

David A. Christenson, MA, MSc, Senior Consultant with Paradigm Human Performance Ltd


Conklin, T. E. (2019). The 5 principles of human performance: A contemporary update of the building blocks of Human Performance for the new view of safety, Pre-Accident Investigation Media, Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA

Weick, K. E. and Sutcliffe, K. M. (2001). Managing the unexpected: Assuring high performance in an age of complexity, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA, USA

Weick, K. E. and Sutcliffe, K. M. (2007). Managing the unexpected: Resilient performance in an age of uncertainty, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA, USA

More insights coming soon.

Date: 08/05/2020 | Author: David Christenson