Avalanches & Construction Project Teamwork

The Colorado mountains were host to a tragedy last month, on April 20th. Six skiers and snowboarders triggered an avalanche that killed five of them.

These guys were experienced backcountry travelers; their collective knowledge and experience made them a group who knew, better than most, what they were getting into, and how to avoid triggering an avalanche. But that didn’t actually translate into making them a great team.

Weird group dynamics often contribute to disaster. The larger the group, the less likely people are to speak up with dissenting opinions. An interesting study on data from human-triggered avalanches supports this statement in the context of avalanche danger.

The Denver Post had a great article on this tragedy, and how the “pack mentality” contributed to it.

From the Post article:

In 2004, avalanche researcher Ian McCammon released a seminal study “Heuristic Traps in Recreational Avalanche Accidents: Evidence and Implications,” in which he looked at 715 U.S. avalanche accidents from 1972 to 2003. The study found that people traveling alone and parties of six to 10 exposed themselves to significantly more hazard than groups of two, three or four.

McCammon identified six human factors in more than 95 percent of the accidents and concluded that they have the power to lure almost anyone into thinking an avalanche slope is safe. They are:

• Familiarity, which McCammon said “relies on our past actions to guide our behavior in familiar settings.”

• Consistency, which sees people sticking with original assumptions and ignoring new information about potential hazards.

• Acceptance, described by McCammon as “the tendency to engage in activities that we think will get us noticed or accepted.”

• The Expert Halo, which sees group members ascribing avalanche safety skills to a perceived expert, who may lead the group without those skills.

• Social Facilitation, which sees groups tending toward riskier decisions.

• Scarcity, or the “powder fever,” that can overwhelm backcountry travelers hunting for deep, untracked snow.

Many of these cues were clearly evident April 20 when the six skiers and snowboarders were buried in the 800-foot wide avalanche that slid 600 vertical feet off the north-facing flank of Mount Sniktau.

Hey, architects, does any of this sound familiar to you? Working on a team with an owner who listens to the contractor more than to you, because she’s worked with that contractor before, even though you have to stamp the drawings? Keep working on what you designed with an original budget in mind, although the budget has changed? Don’t want to rock the boat because you hope to work with this owner again in the future? Let the contractor select a roofing assembly because you perceive him to be more of an expert on roofs, even though you don’t actually know that he is? Willing to specify a completely new untested product because someone else on the team recommended it? Willing to take on a client, or work with a contractor, who has proven unreliable in the past, just because there’s not much work to be had?

From the study: “In hindsight, the danger was often obvious before these accidents happened, and so people struggle to explain how intelligent people with avalanche training could have seen the hazard, looked straight at it, and behaved as if it wasn’t there.”

We can’t do this design and construction thing alone. But when teams get too big, it’s human nature to speak up less. Architects, keep this human tendency in mind as more and more projects become contractor-led. Don’t forget that, although your life isn’t in danger due to not speaking up when you know better, as it is in the mountain backcountry, your reputation and liability are. You may be part of a pack, but you’re the team member who stamps those construction documents. You’re responsible for their content, no matter who contributed to them. You don’t have to go along with the pack on everything.