Predicting Surprises

jack popped

My colleague recommended reading Predictable Surprises, a book by Max H. Bazerman and Michael D. Watkins, and then it was discussed in the Human-Centered Design course. And finally another colleague learned about it in his management short course at Harvard. So I read the book.

Predictable surprises are disasters you should have seen coming–events or a set of events that take an individual or group by surprise, despite prior awareness of all the information necessary to anticipate the events and their consequences. (p 1)

The book focuses on three themes: cognitive failures, organizational failures, and political failures. There are 6 general characteristics to predictable surprises:

  1. Leaders know a problem existed and that the problem would not solve itself.
  2. Predictable surprises can be expected when organization members recognize that a problem is getting worse over time.
  3. Fixing the problem would incur significant costs in the present, while the benefits of action would be delayed.
  4. Addressing the predictable surprise typically requires incurring costs, while the reward is avoiding a cost that is uncertain but likely to be much larger. And perhaps more importantly, leaders know they can expect little credit for preventing them.
  5. Decision makers, organizations and nations often fail to prepare for predictable surprises because of the natural tendency to maintain the status quo.
  6. A small, vocal minority benefits from inaction and is motivated to subvert the actions of leaders for their own private benefit.

jack in the box popped

I can think of many predictable surprises that challenges me as a leader and our society at large. Working on Delta solutions is a case study in predictable surprises. They offer up examples such as Hurricane Katrina and the aftermath. They also mention the meltdown of the financial system in 2007-8. If you want to skip reading the book, then please go see The Big Short. This movie does a terrific job of explaining what happened. Just do not believe the hype–it is a tragedy not a comedy.

If you are involved in trying to solve a problem such as climate change or even something narrower such as leading a change initiative in a company, I recommend Predictable Surprises.

The book does not offer many solutions to avoiding predictable surprises–although recognizing them is a management advantage. My conclusion is that it is another strong reason to create and actively maintain a risk register and to make managing risk a discipline.


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