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Predictable Surprises

August 3, 2009

Max Bazerman and Michael Watkins have described crises and disasters as “predictable surprises.”  Their 2004 book of the same name examines the cognitive, organizational, and political roots of failures to anticipate and prepare for disaster.

The keys to preventing crises, the authors argue, lie in three important leadership tasks: recognition, prioritization, and mobilization.

Of these three, recognition is not just the first and most important, but also the most difficult for most people to implement.  Without recognition, prioritization and mobilization simply cannot occur.

Bazerman and Watkins recommend four techniques for improving organizational capacity to recognize emerging threats:

  1. Redesigning measurement systems;
  2. Building intelligence networks;
  3. Employing structured scenario planning; and
  4. Institutionalizing disciplined learning processes.

All four of these techniques either involves or depends upon relationships.  Discovering relationships among seemingly disconnected ideas, events, and people becomes much easier when leaders and their organizations adopt an open posture toward one another and their wider world.

Personal and professional relationships not only expand our networks, they also expose us to insights and accountabilities from multiple, diverse perspectives.  These interactions occur in both structured and unstructured settings and produce both formal and informal feedback.

Many of us find connecting with sources of information and insights that lie beyond our everyday experience daunting.  But making time to discover and reflect upon new  inputs affords us opportunities to see common characteristics, intersections, and motivations that can inform our understanding of situations we encounter in our own domains.

Acquiring and practicing the simple discpline of openness by reading widely, particiapting in civic and professional organizations, and engaging others, especially strangers, in conversation can lead to pleasant surprises that open new windows on the world while simultaneously making it a much more enjoyable place to live.

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