Mount Everest Case Study

Topics: Mount Everest, Team, The A-Team Pages: 23 (9202 words) Published: June 6, 2015
Human Relations
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The 1996 Mount Everest climbing disaster: The breakdown of learning in teams
D. Christopher Kayes
Human Relations 2004; 57; 1263
DOI: 10.1177/0018726704048355
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Page 1263

Human Relations
DOI: 10.1177/0018726704048355
Volume 57(10): 1263–1284
Copyright © 2004
The Tavistock Institute ®
SAGE Publications
London, Thousand Oaks CA,
New Delhi
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The 1996 Mount Everest climbing
disaster: The breakdown of learning in
teams
D. Christopher Kayes

A B S T R AC T

Qualitative analysis of the events leading to the deaths of eight climbers on Mt Everest in 1996 illustrates the breakdown of learning in teams. The analysis contributes to research on the role of teams in organizational disasters by considering team learning and development as the basis for success in complex and changing organizations. Multiple qualitative methods reveal three precursors associated with the breakdown of learning in teams: narrowly defined purpose, directive leadership and failure to sense an ill-defined problem. Findings have implications for normal disasters and sense-making, performance in short-term project teams, and organizational

learning.

KEYWORDS

disaster sense-making ᭿ errors and accidents ᭿ organizational and experiential learning ᭿ teams and groups

There’s so many things that went wrong – little errors, things that are black and white down here aren’t really black and white up there. You know, the decision-making process is a little bit more muddled. (Mountain climber and rescue party member Ed Viesturs,

quoted in Rose, 1998: 8)
Researchers know that muddled team process often leads to disastrous consequences (Elmes & Barry, 1999; Gephart, 1993; Janis, 1972; Perrow, 1984; 1263

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Human Relations 57(10)

Snook, 2000; Weick, 1993). As organizations increasingly rely on teams to respond to complex organizational problems, research on how teams learn in the face of these challenges takes on heightened importance. This article analyzes the 1996 Mt Everest climbing disaster with regard to the breakdown of learning in teams. It follows a growing body of research about the role of learning in organizational errors and their prevention (Edmondson, 1996, 1999; Rasmussen, 1990; Weick & Roberts, 1993). Although it is well understood that team learning contributes to stability when organizations face complex and challenging situations, this study takes a different direction to argue that the breakdown of team learning can lead to organizational disaster.

The analysis is organized as follows. First, I analyze the role of team learning in organizational disaster. Drawing on Mills’s (1967) notion of team development, this article describes the importance of learning in teams when faced with complex problems emblematic of disaster. Second, multiple qualitative analysis methods used to interpret the Mt Everest events are described. Third, I recount the events of the 1996 Mt Everest climbing disaster to illustrate the breakdown of team learning in the face of a complex organizational problem. Fourth, analysis of the events reveals factors that impede...
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