Working Paper | HBS Working Paper Series | 2014

Learning from the Kursk Submarine Rescue Failure: the Case for Pluralistic Risk Management

by Anette Mikes and Amram Migdal

Abstract

The Kursk, a Russian nuclear-powered submarine, sank in the relatively shallow waters of the Barents Sea in August 2000 during a naval exercise. Numerous survivors were reported to be awaiting rescue, and within a week, an international rescue party gathered at the scene, which had seemingly possessed all that was needed for a successful rescue. Yet they failed to save anybody. Drawing on the recollections and daily situational reports of Commodore David Russell, who headed the Royal Navy's rescue mission, and on Robert Moore's (2002) award-winning book A Time to Die: The Kursk Disaster, the paper explores how and why this failure—a multiparty coordination failure—occurred. The Kursk rescue mission also illustrates a key issue in multiparty risk and disaster management, namely that the organizational challenge is to enable multiple actors and subunits with competing and often conflicting values and expertise to establish a virtual, well-aligned organization. Organizational structures that can resolve evaluative dissonance, and processes that enable such a resolution, have been proposed in various literatures. Attempting to synthesize relevant works on pluralistic control and collaborative heterarchies, this paper proposes the foundations of what might be called pluralistic risk management, and it examines its conditions of possibility, in light of the lessons of the Kursk submarine rescue failure.

Keywords: Risk Management; Groups and Teams; Crisis Management;

Citation:

Mikes, Anette, and Amram Migdal. "Learning from the Kursk Submarine Rescue Failure: the Case for Pluralistic Risk Management." Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 15-003, July 2014.