Episode Summary

The reluctance to drop one’s tools when threat intensifies, and the reasons behind not dropping them, is the focus of the paper we are examining in this episode. We are discussing the 1996 paper “Drop Your Tools: An Allegory for Organizational Studies” by Karl Weick.  The paper compares and contrasts two tragic events involving firefighters who perished because they did not drop their tools to run (Mann Gulch, in 1949, and South Canyon in 1994) with ten principles laid out by James Thompson, the first editor of Administrative Science Quarterly.

Episode Notes

The paper’s abstract reads:

The failure of 27 wildland firefighters to follow orders to drop their heavy tools so they could move faster and outrun an exploding fire led to their death within sight of safe areas. Possible explanations for this puzzling behavior are developed using guidelines proposed by James D. Thompson, the first editor of the Administrative Science Quarterly. These explanations are then used to show that scholars of organizations are in analogous threatened positions, and they too seem to be keeping their heavy tools and falling behind. ASQ’s 40th anniversary provides a pretext to reexamine this potentially dysfunctional tendency and to modify it by reaffirming an updated version of Thompson’s original guidelines.

The Mann Gulch fire was a wildfire in Montana where 15 smokejumpers approached the fire to begin fighting it, and unexpected high winds caused the fire to suddenly expand. This “blow-up” of the fire covered 3,000 acres (1,200 ha) in ten minutes, claiming the lives of 13 firefighters, including 12 of the smokejumpers. Only three of the smokejumpers survived.

The South Canyon Fire was a 1994 wildfire that took the lives of 14 wildland firefighters on Storm King Mountain, near Glenwood Springs, Colorado, on July 6, 1994. It is often also referred to as the “Storm King” fire.

Discussion Points:

  • Some details of the Mann Gulch fire deaths due to refusal to drop their tools
  • Weich lays out ten reasons why these firefighters may have refused to drop their tools:
  • Couldn’t hear the order
  • Lack of explanation for order – unusual, counterintuitive
  • You don’t trust the leader
  • Control- if you lose your tools, lose capability, not a firefighter
  • Skill at dropping tools – ie survivor who leaned a shovel against a tree instead of dropping
  • Skill with replacement activity – it’s an unfamiliar situation
  • Failure – to drop your tools, as a firefighter,  is to fail
  • Social dynamics – why would I do it if others are not
  • Consequences – if people believe it won’t make a difference, they won’t drop. These men should have been shown the difference it would make
  • Identity- being a firefighter, without tools they are throwing away their identity.  This was also shortly after WWII, where you are a coward if you throw away your weapons, and would be alienated from your group
  • Thomson had four principles necessary for research in his publication:
  • Administrative science should focus on relationships – you can’t understand without structures and people and variables.
  • Abstract concepts – not on single concrete ideas, but theories that apply to the field
  • Development of operational definitions that bridge concepts and raw experience – not vague fluffy things with confirmation bias – sadly, we still don’t have all the definitions today
  • Value of the problem – what do they mean? What is the service researchers are trying to provide?
  • How Weick applies these principles to the ten reasons, then looks at what it means for researchers
  • Weick’s list of ten- they are multiple, interdependent reasons – they can all be true at the same time
  • Thompsons list of four, relating them to Weick’s ten, in today’s organizations
  • What are the heavy tools that we should get rid of? Weick links heaviest tools with identity
  • Drew’s thought – getting rid of risk assessments would let us move faster, but people won’t drop them, relating to the ten reasons above
  • Takeaways:
  • 1) Emotional vs. cognitive  (did I hear that, do I know what to do) emotional (trust, failure, etc.) in individuals and teams
  • 2) Understanding group dynamics/first person/others to follow – the pilot diversion story, Piper Alpha oil rig jumpers, first firefighter who drops tools.
  • Next week is episode 100 – we’ve got a plan!


“Our attachment to our tools is not a simple, rational thing.” – Drew

“It’s really hard to recognize that you’re well past that point where success is not an option at all.” – Drew

“These firefighters were several years since they’d been in a really raging, high-risk fire situation…” – David

“I encourage anyone to read Weick’s papers, they’re always well-written.” – David

“Well, I think according to Weick, the moment you begin to think that dropping your tools is impossible and unthinkable, that might be the moment you actually have to start wondering why you’re not dropping your tools.” – Drew

“The heavier the tool is, the harder it is to drop.” – Drew


Karl Weick – Drop Your Tools Paper

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