SWAT Teams vs. Film Crews, how they both use Bricolage

I came across this study comparing the reaction of Film Crews and SWAT teams to crisis, and wondered how that could be applied to business.

Becky & Okhuysen (2011) were investigating how individuals respond to surprise as evidenced through observation of SWAT teams and film crews whilst they are working under pressure. Applying epistemic scripts and the shared knowledge of tasks, they dissected how these responses could apply to organisations, which face surprise on a regular basis. The authors were enquiring what ability individuals might have to shuffle the order of their own tasks, when navigating sudden unexpected change, whilst still working towards a common goal.

The researchers analysed the ability of individuals to respond to change through the use of bricolage; “making do by applying combinations of the resources at hand to new problems and opportunities” (Baker and Nelson, 2005: 353).

Theoretical Framework
Relying on social constructivism, Becky & Okhuysen (2011) in their research set out an exploratory framework to better understand interorganisational dynamics by observing how individuals respond to change through meta-routines and shifting responsibilities. The researchers looked for patterns or typical overlapping responses within the social structure of teams when the teams were adapting to unplanned or changing circumstances.

Becky & Okhuysen (2011) used the epistemic knowledge of bricolage, derived from the work of Lévi-Strauss (1966), which has become popular in explaining organizational theory, although bricoloage has rarely being used in presenting new theories, as applied to organisational design (Boxenbaum and Rouleau, 2011).

Research Design & Methodology
The authors as a core, employed two empirical research methods: observation and induction, both are of a qualitative nature. Whilst employing an ethnographic approach for both groups the method varied in the application. With the film crew an embedded case study design was employed, by placing the researcher as one of the participants in the everyday routines, allowing her to make first hand observations. Actual SWAT team missions were deemed too dangerous, so in-depth strategic interpersonal interviews were conducted, and direct observation of training activities.

With both the film crews and SWAT teams, secondary data collection was used to support the primary methods, by reviewing archive data such as television documentaries, periodicals and training/work schedules.

Results of the Study
Using bricolage as a foundation, the researchers explain organisational responses to abrupt or sudden unplanned change through the ability of individuals to act as bricoleurs, being the work or process required in achieving the common expectation/goal through task sharing and resource mobilisation.

The researchers found the capacity for teams to develop their socio-cognitive skills, being able to shift between roles or restacking the order of tasks as deviations from prior learned behavior, would determine their capability to successfully navigate change.

The authors through bricolage suggest a three-step approach required by entrepreneurial or innovative teams to effectively navigate change.

PLAN – Develop the outline for the plan of action, beginning the process of shared task knowledge across the entire team, of both the goals and also the basic processes that will be required. REHEARSE – Continual repetition and permutations so that the team knows exactly how events follow-on from each other, creating a priority order in the workflow. Baker and Nelson (2005) found that new combinations of resources and task brought social and interactive solutions to new problems rather than relying on single processes. REDUNDANCY - Highly effective teams are required to build cross member expertise so that any change to the social construction does not alter the outcome; “the resulting organizational routines are like habits or programs that are executed without conscious thought” (Feldman and Pentland, 2003: 99).

The success of high performing teams is also the ability of individuals to unlearn previous routines and implement new routines that he or she has devised as a response to unplanned changes in previous routines/tasks. Tsang and Zahra (2008: 1444) state, “Unlearning at the individual level refers to the case where a person becomes aware that certain items of knowledge he or she possesses are no longer valid or useful”

As the individual bricoleurs actions within these scripted routines are stitched or pieced together to provide common solutions to the problems they face, it is how individuals react as bricoleurs themselves, which contributes to the ultimate success or failures. “Organsiational routines may track experience and adapt to changes in some situations and may not do so in other situations.” (Espedal, 2006: 484)

Whilst there are commonalities in the external environment that both groups faced (weather, illness of a team member, change in physical location), the consequences of failure were divergent. The film crew may only face a lack of continuity through reshooting and resulting cost overruns, but the SWAT would face increasing levels of physical harm and even death. The extreme negative outcome of failure within SWAT teams, death, might disrupt the links between lower level routines if individuals, within these teams, adapt them in isolation, through the application of their own personal experiences.

Both researchers used ethnographic methods, but it could be said that Okhuysen’s observations were partially made under experimental conditions of observing only the training exercises and not actual missions. Whilst, Okhuysen did conduct post mission interviews (to compensate for not being present during SWAT missions) these indirect observations might be influenced the individual’s own emotional responses to what had occurred during the SWAT mission.

Becky & Okhuysen (2011) make no mention in the research of whether new team members join either the Film Crew or SWAT team after filming or a mission has already started. Further research should be done to measure the impact of new members to a routine as previous research has found that a degree of organisational unlearning of existing routines occurs when new members join, as these new members bring not only their own views and skill sets, but also need to develop as bricoleur contributors within the new team (Tsang and Zahra, 2008). This dynamic should be probed further to determine the outcome in the overall team performance.

The applicability of responding to change affects all organisations, Johannisson (2011: 137) in analysing highly effective entrepreneurs found that “everyday life is actually a flow of disturbances.” Espedal (2006) previously found that top leaders by adopting an entrepreneurial mindset, of learning by experience, would be better able to react and adapt to rapidly changing markets. Further study should be undertaken in the light of the sudden financial crisis at the end of 2008 on how organisations can better respond to unforeseen change, as the ability of firms to be innovative is significantly influenced with bricolage (Baker et al., 2011). Further research should overlay entrepreneurial management styles to assess the effectiveness of organisations performance.

[Grant Marais]


Baker, T., Davidsson, P., Senyard, J. and Steffens, P. (2011) 'Resource Constraints in Innovation: The role of Bricolage in New Venture Creation and Firm Development', 8th International AGSE Entrepreneurship Research Exchange, Melbourne, 609-622.

Baker, T. and Nelson, R.E. (2005) 'Creating Something from Nothing: Resource Construction through Entrepreneurial Bricolage', Administrative Science Quarterly, vol. 50, no. 3, pp. 329-366.

Bechky, B.A. and Okhuysen, G.A. (2011) 'Expecting the Unexected? How SWAT Officers and Film Crews Handle Surprise', Academy of Management Journal, vol. 54, no. 2, pp. 239-261.

Boxenbaum, E. and Rouleau, L. (2011) 'New Knowledge Products as Bricolage: Metaphors and Scripts in Organisational Theory', Academy of Management Review, vol. 36, no. 2, pp. 272-296.

Espedal, B. (2006) 'Do Organisational Routines Change as Experience Changes', The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, vol. 42, no. 4, pp. 468-490.

Feldman, M.S. and Pentland, B.T. (2003) 'Reconceptualizing Organisational Routines as a Source of Flexibility and Change', Administrative Science Quarterly, vol. 48, no. 1, pp. 94-118.

Johannisson, B. (2011) 'Towards a Practice Theory of Entrepreneuring', Small Bus Economics, vol. 36, no. 2, pp. 135-150.

Lévi-Strauss, C. (1966) The Savage Mind, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Tsang, E. and Zahra, S. (2008) 'Organisational Unlearning', Human Relations, vol. 61, pp. 1435-1462.

[Grant Marais]


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