SWAT Teams and Film Crews Models for Managing Crisis Episodes

Long before SWAT officers burst into a building to rescue hostages or arrest an armed suspect, the team has practiced similar types of assaults over and over to fine tune routines to handle such crises. Similarly, film crews must work through unexpected events to get the job of movie making done right.

At the annual meeting of the Academy of Management in Boston, Associate Professor Beth Bechky and her co-author Professor Gerardo Okhuysen from UC Irvine shared what they have learn from SWAT teams and film production crews about how organizations respond to surprises.

In their research, they found that film productions have broad routines that are used in normal situations (such as “over-communication”) while SWAT teams have narrow routines that they practice a lot (like “dynamic” vs. “stealth” entries into buildings). These work better in different forms of crisis, Bechky says. For example, film productions have time to respond when situations turn hot so they can communicate a lot; SWAT teams have to act instantaneously so changing narrow routines are more effective.

We speculate that the differences in the two sets of actions also means that SWAT teams are more effective in crises that are more familiar while film productions deal better with novel surprises,” Bechky says.

Her research adds to the literature on routines by pointing out the variation in routines and how they might be more or less effective given the organization.

Bechky says companies and managers should take note. “Being prepared for surprises and responding effectively to them requires practices that enable marshaling the expertise in the organization during times of crisis, as well as providing ways for people to easily work together in the moment.”

At the Academy of Management meeting, Bechky was honored with an award from Organization Science for extraordinary service during her five-year tenure as senior editor from 2007–2011.