Disaster Dynamics: Understanding the Role of Interruptions and Stress in Organizational Collapse

Jenny W. Rudolph

Organization Studies Department Carroll School of Management Boston College Chestnut Hill, MA 04167, USA Phone: 617/ 552-1092; Fax: 617/552-4230 E-Mail: jenny_rudolph@msn.com

Nelson R. Repenning
MIT Sloan School of Management, E53-339
Cambridge, MA USA 02142
Phone 617-258-6889
Fax: 617-258-7579


Version 5.0

Full article appears in

Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 47, pp: 1- 30.


Thanks to Debra Ancona, Paul Carlile, John Carroll, Erica Foldy, Paulo Goncalves, Lee Fleming, Danna Greenberg, Candace Jones, Mark Kleiman, Tammy MacLean, Brad Morrison, James Reason, Peter Repenning, John Sterman, Steve Taylor, Bill Torbert, Diane Vaughan, Karl Weick, Joanne Yates, seminar participants at Harvard, MIT and Boston College, three anonymous reviewers and the Associate Editor, Joe Porac, for very helpful comments.


Studies of disaster often focus on incomprehensible events and how people react to them.  Many disasters, however, have less novel origins, often arising from the accumulation of small, even trivial, routine events.  In this article we study the role of quantity in precipitating disaster through the development of a formal (mathematical) system dynamics model.  Building on existing case studies of disaster, we develop a general theory of how an organizational system responds to an on-going stream of non-novel interruptions to existing plans and procedures.  Using our model, we show how an over-accumulation of interruptions can shift an organizational system from a resilient, self-regulating regime, which offsets the effects of this accumulation, to a fragile, self-escalating regime that amplifies them.  We offer a new characterization of the conditions under which organizations may be prone to major disasters caused by an accumulation of minor interruptions. Our analysis provides both theoretical insights into the causes of organizational crises and practical suggestions for those charged with preventing them.

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