By Ryan Quinn
I have a friend who is an entrepreneur and spent most of the past decade building up a company that did work in real estate financing. I probably do not have to tell you the rest of the story. Looking back, he can see the signs of the impending financial collapse of 2008, but at the time it seemed too improbable to believe. He kept running his business until circumstances forced him to shut down. Since then, he has been struggling professionally. While he is more than competent to get work of some kind in the financial industry, he does not have all of the necessary formal credentials to do so. He is mid-career, has children who are or soon will be going to college, and a mortgage to pay. And now he is trying to re-invent himself professionally.
I have had a number of conversations with this friend, and I continue to be amazed by his resilience. He has decided that he wants to go into the advertising business. He has no training and little experience in advertising, but he believes he has some skills and predilections that will help him to succeed in that business. In our most recent conversation, he updated me about his progress. Each time I meet with him, I begin the conversation by thinking, “How is he ever going to pull this off?” Then, as we talk, he tells me some of the ideas he has tried out. I think to myself, “That’s not a bad idea–I could see that working.” I throw in a few ideas of my own, and he has already thought of or even begun working on most of them. By the time we end our conversation I find myself thinking, “I’ll be surprised if this man does not succeed in the long run.”
Learning Through Rare Events
My colleagues efforts to enter the advertising industry are a wonderful example of what Marlys Christianson and her colleagues  call “Learning through rare events.” Christianson and her colleagues emphasize the word “through” as a contrast with the idea of learning “from” rare events. They make this distinction because “The phrase ‘learning from rare events’ implies that the learning associated with a rare event occurs separately from the event–after the event–and is subject to the simplifications of hindsight. [Learning through rare events] suggests that learning occurs throughout the course of the rare event and that the people who generate the event are the same people who apply them.” (page 850).
My entrepreneurial friend is clearly learning through a rare event. The demise of his business and the need to re-invent his professional self in the middle of his career are rare events. As he tries to re-invent himself, he is in a constant state of learning and applying new lessons.
The B&O Railroad Museum
Christianson and her colleagues realized that people and organizations learn through rare events by studying the story of the re-invention of the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore, MD. The B&O railroad museum houses the world’s most comprehensive collection of railroad artifacts. Like many museums, the B&O spent most of the 1990s losing money. In 2000, Courtney Wilson took over the museum and came up with the idea of hosting “The Fair of the Iron Horse”–an event that had occurred 75 years previously–as a way of increasing the museum’s publicity and improving its financial prospects. In February, 2003, after a year and a half of preparations for the July 2003 event, a massive snowfall led to the collapse of the museum roof, damaging many, if not most, of the museum’s artifacts.
The B&O railroad staff decided to rebuild the museum, but they faced enormous obstacles: lost artifacts, insufficient funds, a second collapse of the higher roof, insurance issues, and on and on. They also received help and discovered many opportunities as they learned from the event along the way. When the museum re-opened in November 2004, it was 72,245 square feet larger, catered to a much wider audience of museum goers, was more financially secure, had more exhibits, was a better and more accessible structure, and operated without the organizational silos that had existed before.
How to Learn Through Rare Events
Based on their analysis of the story of the B&O Railroad Museum, Christianson and her colleagues identified three “triggers” that exist within rare events that can cue learning for attentive leaders. These are:
- Rare Events Audit Existing Response Repertoires. Rare events help organizational actors to see what their strengths and weaknesses are. Rare events at the B&O helped leaders to learn that they had a structurally unsound building, people with skill sets that needed to be updated or replaced, and that their communications infrastructure was weak. They also discovered that they had hidden strengths, such as strong and relevant relations with external parties, skills for communicating with media, and value in the larger community. Similarly, my friend discovered the vulnerability of lacking formal credentials, but also discovered that the interest and skills he developed in developing advertising for his previous company revealed creativity and a set of network connections that could create new opportunities. Leaders need to look for and be willing to accept what they learn about strengths and weaknesses when rare events occur.
- Rare Events Strengthen Organizing Routines. Rare events help us see what we usually take for granted in our routines, and thus make our routines easier to modify. This occurs as people interpret, relate, and re-structure. The B&O people interpreted by deciding that the collapse of the roof was an opportunity to build a stronger, more accessible and more interesting museum; related by empathizing with people’s pain and conveying to them a vision for moving forward; and restructured by re-allocating roles and responsibilities, such as taking over insurance claim settlements instead of hiring a firm to do it. Similarly, my entrepreneur friend interpreted the demise of his firm as an opportunity to re-invent his professional self, related by drawing on friends and colleagues to discover new resources, and re-structured by re-defining the role of a professional advertiser for local businesses as creating new configurations of advertising opportunities.
- Rare Events Redirect Organizational Identity. Rare events can help people open themselves up to consider possibilities about who they are in ways that they might not consider without rare events. B&O people re-defined their museum from an “academic institution” to be an entertainment organization as well as an educational organization, just as my entrepreneur friend is expanding himself and his business from being a financial firm that advertises to an advertising firm.
What It Means
Rare events, then, are just extreme forms of the interruptions that leaders and their employees experience every day. For leaders, this means that how we deal with interruptions is consequential. We can learn to treat interruptions as learning opportunities or we can ignore, deny, avoid, or steamroll through them. They can open up opportunities for re-interpreting our world, engaging others, and adapting our structures. And we can treat our identities as something to update and adapt or something that is sacrosanct and untouchable. Obviously, all interruptions cannot be given the same level of attention as rare events, but if we use the interruptions of daily life as opportunities to practice learning, focusing on the positive, collaborating with others, and so forth, then we will be much more capable of managing rare events effectively when they come.
This is what my entrepreneur friend has done. I don’t know what the end of his story will be, but I cannot help but believe that the outcome will be positive because of how well he has practiced and what he is learning through this rare event.
 Christianson, M. K. et al. (2009). Learning through rare events: Significant interruptions at the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum. Organization Science, 20(5): 846-860.