Drop Your Tools: An Allegory for Organizational Studies

By Weick, Karl E. | Administrative Science Quarterly, June 1996 | Go to article overview

Drop Your Tools: An Allegory for Organizational Studies


Weick, Karl E., Administrative Science Quarterly


Anniversaries, such as ASQ's 40th year of publication, are occasions to take stock. Taking stock is an activity that is often a complex mixture of appreciation, wariness, anticipation, regret, and pride, all fused into thoughts of renewal. Carlos Fuentes (1990: 49-50) talked about the complications of renewal when he described the modern dilemma as "how to accept the diversity and mutation of the world while retaining the mind's power of analogy and unity so that this changing world shall not become meaningless. Being modern is not a question of sacrificing the past in favor of the new, but of monitoring, comparing, and remembering values we created, making them modern so as not to lose the value of the modern."

In this essay, I explore a set of remembered, founding values for organizational studies articulated by the first editor of ASQ, James D. Thompson (1956) in the first issue of the journal. The vehicle I use to explore these values is a story of organizing and death that played itself out in two separate disasters involving crews engaged in wildland firefighting. In 1949, 13 firefighters lost their lives at Mann Gulch, and in 1994, 14 more firefighters lost their lives under similar conditions at South Canyon. In both cases, these 23 men and four women were overrun by exploding fires when their retreat was slowed because they failed to drop the heavy tools they were carrying. By keeping their tools, they lost valuable distance they could have covered more quickly if they had been lighter (Putnam, 1994, 1995). All 27 perished within sight of safe areas. The question is, why did the firefighters keep their tools? The imperative, "drop your tools or you will die," is the image that I want to examine more closely.

The reluctance to drop one's tools when threat intensifies is not just a problem for firefighters. Navy seamen sometimes refuse orders to remove their heavy steel-toed shoes when they are forced to abandon a sinking ship, and they drown or punch holes in life rafts as a result. Fighter pilots in a disabled aircraft sometimes refuse orders to eject, preferring instead the "cocoon of oxygen" still present in the cockpit. Karl Wallenda, the world-renowned high-wire artist, fell to his death still clutching his balance pole, when his hands could have grabbed the wire below him.

Dropping one's tools is a proxy for unlearning, for adaptation, for flexibility, in short, for many of the dramas that engage organizational scholars. It is the very unwillingness of people to drop their tools that turns some of these dramas into tragedies. These dramas, however, are not confined simply to the people in organizations that scholars study. The scholars themselves are equally at risk. Kaplan's (1964: 28) "law of the instrument" portrays part of the risk: "Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding. It comes as no particular surprise to discover that a scientist formulates problems in a way which requires for their solution just those techniques in which he himself is especially skilled." What else is "the law of the instrument" but a pointed comment that social scientists refuse to drop their paradigms, parables, and propositions when their own personal survival is threatened. To drop one's tools, then, is an allegory for all seasons that is capable of connecting the past with the present.

To introduce the allegory as a vehicle for stocktaking, I develop the following argument. First, I briefly paraphrase Thompson's four guidelines for inquiry in administrative science. Second, I analyze the puzzling reluctance of firefighters to drop their tools and craft this analysis using Thompson's guidelines. Specifically, the analysis highlights the power of context, the complex relationships that determine organized behavior, and the power of abstract concepts to reflect the details of firefighting into systems of thought. Third, I exploit the allegorical quality of the story and suggest that organizational scholars are in a similar threatened position to that of the firefighters and face a similar imperative to drop their heavy tools or they will be overrun.

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