If there’s one deep lesson I’ve learned from years delving into policy and decision-making, it’s that the biggest surprises are hidden in plain sight. Of course, there are genuine (temporary) secrets out there, and many people try to make a living from issuing spurious predictions about the future. But the things which most move the needle are a matter of noticing transparent, open things in the present, not looking for scoops or trying to foretell the future. It’s a matter of actually listening to what you are hearing.
Ironically, by avoiding making mistakes about the current state of things you will almost certainly anticipate the future better anyway, because you won’t be fooling yourself about the situation.
Here’s another way to look at the issue. Max Bazerman teaches decision-making at Harvard. He and a co-author wrote a book named Predictable Surprises: The Disasters You Should Have Seen Coming, and How to Prevent Them. A predictable surprise, they say, is “an event or set of events that take an individual or group by surprise, despite prior awareness of all the information necessary to predict the events and their consequences.”
Take the 9/11 attacks, they say. Granted, it was hard to predict the particular hijackers would attack particular targets on a specific date. But there had been ever increasing data that showed airline security was a deepening problem for over ten years . And little or nothing was done about it. People had been warning about conflicts of interest in accounting for a decade before Enron and Arthur Anderson melted down, but preventative action was avoided. The same thing happens almost every day in one corporation or government department or another.
The key traits, they say are;
- leaders knew a problem existed and would not solve itself.
- a bad outcome was almost inevitable because organizational members knew the problem was getting worse over time;
- but they also knew that fixing the problem would incur costs in the present, while benefits of taking action would be delayed.
- politicians and leaders know that shareholders or constituents will notice the immediate cost. But the leaders also suspect they will get little reward for avoiding a much worse disaster that is ambiguous and distant – so they “often cross their fingers and hope for the best.”
- In any case, people typically like to maintain the status quo. If there is no stark crisis, we tend to keep doing things the way we have always done them. “Acting to avoid a predictable surprise requires a decision to act against this bias and to change the status quo. By contrast, most organizations change incrementally, preferring short-term fixes to long-term solutions.”
- And usually a “small vocal minority benefits from inaction” and blocks action for their own private benefit, even when the organization is desperate for a solution.
The result is: to an astonishing extent people don’t take action based on what they know, or deny contrary information altogether. It’s one of the many reasons why organizations often get into trouble. It’s one reason why in so many crises we don’t need more information or intelligence. We need to act on what we have.
What can be done about it? The authors offer a recognition-prioritization-mobilization sequence of steps to deal with it.
But it starts with recognition.
Positive illusions, self-serving biases, and the tendency to discount the future may prevent people from acknowledging that a problem is emerging. If their state of denial is strong enough, they may not even “see” the storm clouds gathering.
Who can say they haven’t seen examples of this? How many organizations take steps to guard against it?
Without recognition, nothing else works. You solve the wrong problems. You forecast the wrong things. That is the primary challenge that organizations face. It’s the assumptions people make that are the prime cause of trouble. There are so many forces which work in all organizations to distort or reduce recognition. You need to be aware of it, and take active steps to deal with it – or meekly wait for the predictable surprise to find you.