Predictable Surprises: The Disasters You Should Have Seen Coming and How to Prevent Them

Introduction (Via HBS)

The train wreck that was Enron’s collapse is only one big, blatant example of how some disasters catch us unawares—but shouldn’t. In fact, according to Max H. Bazerman and Michael D. Watkins, many surprises in all types and sizes of organizations are predictable and avoidable. Predictable surprises, say Bazerman and Watkins, are a common form of leadership failure. “Predictable surprises happen when leaders had all the data and insight they needed to recognize the potential, even the inevitability, of major problems, but failed to respond with effective preventative action,” they say. Here’s the good news: There are reasons why leaders fail to prevent predictable surprises and there are ways to identify trouble while there is still time to stop it. As authors of a new book from Harvard Business School Press, Predictable Surprises: The Disasters You Should Have Seen Coming and How to Prevent Them, Bazerman and Watkins recently collaborated on the following e-mail interview with HBS Working Knowledge

Favorite Excerpts (Via HBS)

Q: Why are predictable surprises so common?

A: Our research shows that there are psychological, organizational, and political factors that conspire to keep us from dealing with problems that are worthy of our attention.

Psychological vulnerabilities have to do with well-recognized biases in the way people think, such as self-serving illusions and overcommitment, as well as the tendency to stick with the status quo and to discount the future.

Organizational vulnerabilities arise because of structural barriers to the effective collection, processing, and dissemination of information, such as the division of organizations into independently operating silos and the filtering of information as it passes up through the hierarchies.

Political vulnerabilities contribute to predictable surprises when a small number of individuals and organizations are able to “capture” the political system or organization for their own benefit.

Additional Excerpts (Via HBS)

Martha Lagace: What distinguishes a predictable surprise from any event seen with 20/20 hindsight?

Max Bazerman and Michael Watkins: Bad surprises really do happen to good leaders. But there must be a point where we hold leaders accountable for their failure to prevent predictable surprises. There must be a point at which we conclude that leaders have been misguided or negligent or both.

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25. September 2009 by Miguel Barbosa
Categories: Curated Readings, Risk & Uncertainty | Leave a comment

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