Here are the traits of predictable surprises (with Sept. 11 and Katrina examples), and the steps you can take to keep them from happening:
- Leaders know a problem exists (al-Qaeda) and that the problem will not solve itself.
- They recognize that the problem is growing worse (intelligence “chatter” leading up to 9/11).
- Solving the problem would cost a bundle in the short term (beefed-up airport security; shoring up the levee), while the benefits would be delayed and nobody will see a tangible return on investment.
- Addressing the problem will incur a cost (billions of dollars in security measures), but the reward is avoiding a much higher cost (thousands of lives lost).
- Decision-makers often fail to prepare for predictable surprises because of the tendency to preserve the status quo (FBI and CIA reluctance to work together).
- A small but vocal minority (the airline lobby) benefits from inaction and is motivated to subvert leaders from preventing disasters for its own benefit.
How to stop catastrophes
Think of a nasty surprise that’s hit your organization, and ask yourself these questions:
- “Should we have recognized this emerging threat?”
- “If we recognized it, did we give it the priority it deserved?”
- “If we set this threat at the right priority level, did we mobilize effectively to deal with it?”
But if a surprise is foreseeable and preventable, then you must hold yourself to the standard of “responsible leader.” That is, if you can reasonably be expected to recognize, prioritize and mobilize to avoid disaster, then failure to do it means you failed to lead.
— Adapted from Predictable Surprises: The Disasters You Should Have Seen Coming and How to Prevent Them, Max H. Bazerman and Michael D. Watkins, Harvard Business School Press.