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

By — on / News, Reviews of Books

9/11 was preceded by a stream of warning signs in the years and months leading up to the disaster. Yet when the attacks occurred, leaders at every level were taken by surprise. A lack of auditor independence and creative accounting procedures have long been tagged as “ticking time bombs” in the financial markets. However, when Enron toppled, it sent shockwaves through Wall Street — and the world. Why do leaders consistently ignore looming signs of crises even when they know the consequences could be devastating?

Decision-making experts Max Bazerman and Michael Watkins argue that “predictable surprises” — events that catch leaders off guard even though they had all the information necessary to anticipate them — represent a pervasive failure of leadership that holds grave consequences for individuals, organizations, and society.

Predictable Surprises goes beyond simply assigning blame to explore why leaders so often miss or ignore impending disasters and what they can do to prevent them. Through detailed and riveting accounts of the events, missed signals, and ignored warnings leading up to 9/11, the fall of Enron, and other high-profile disasters, Bazerman and Watkins explain the cognitive, organizational, and political biases that make predictable surprises so common, and outline proactive steps leaders can take to overcome them.

The authors argue that organizations will achieve the greatest success in preventing predictable surprises if they adopt blanket measures to prepare for a spectrum of disasters, rather than addressing potential surprises one at a time. Bazerman and Watkins identify six danger signals that suggest a predictable surprise may be imminent, and outline a prescriptive framework that will improve leaders’ ability to recognize legitimate problems, prioritize brewing crises amidst a sea of “noise,” and mobilize an organization to respond quickly and effectively to prevent disasters.

A timely assessment of a disturbing phenomenon, this book calls on leaders in all walks of life to find the courage to act before it’s too late.

Max H. Bazerman is the Jesse Isidor Straus Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, and the Director of the Project on the Psychological Processes of Negotiation at PON.

Michael D. Watkins is the founder of Genesis Advisers, a leadership and strategy consultancy.

Predictable Surprises may be ordered online at the Program on Negotiation Clearinghouse.

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