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

An exploration of why political and organizational leaders so often miss or ignore impending disasters, despite having all of the evidence necessary to anticipate them, and what they can do to prevent them


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 shock-waves 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.


“Leaders are not omniscient and never can be. But reading this book will help any leader to understand how and why problems we can see brewing might become disasters, and how better to head off these calamitous predictable surprises.” – Robert S. McNamara, former United States Secretary of Defense

“In Predictable Surprises, Bazerman and Watkins shed new light on an old problem – the failure of individuals and organizations to act on what they know. Their book helps us to understand why this problem is so pervasive and how it can be overcome.”Graham Allison, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, and author, Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe

“Now we have a new term – predictable surprises – that perfectly captures an important concept: disasters for which there were warning signs, but which people did not want to see or face. Bazerman and Watkins provide a fascinating new perspective on planning and preparing, and a refreshing approach to responsible leadership. This engaging book should be read by government leaders, CEOs, and the general public.”James Lee Witt, former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and author, Stronger in the Broken Places: Nine Lessons for Turning Crisis into Triumph

PON Teaching Negotiation Resource Center

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Soft copy vs. hard copy

You may order this role simulation in either soft copy (electronic) or hard copy (paper) format. If you select the soft copy option, you will receive an e-mail with a URL (website address) from which you may download an electronic file in Adobe Acrobat PDF format. You will have one week to download your materials from when you receive the email. You are then only authorized to use, print, or share the materials as many times as the number of copies you purchase. The TNRC charges for use of this simulation on a per-participant basis. Therefore, you must purchase a separate copy of this simulation for each person who will be participating, regardless of the number of roles in the simulation. You will only receive a link to one electronic file, which includes all general instructions, confidential instructions, and any teaching notes for the simulation. You should separate out the instructions before distributing to participants.

If you select the hard copy option, you will receive paper copies of this role simulation via the shipping method you select.

For additional information about the soft copy option, please visit our FAQ section, or contact the PON Teaching Negotiation Resource Center at or 800-258-4406 (within the U.S.) or 301-528-2676 (outside the U.S.).

Please note: At the present time, Teaching Negotiation Resource Center soft copies are compatible with the following versions of the Adobe Acrobat Reader: English, German, French, Spanish, Swedish, Portuguese, Japanese, and Korean. If you have a different version of the Acrobat Reader, you may wish to download one of these at, or contact the PON Teaching Negotiation Resource Center at, 800-258-4406 (within the U.S.), or 301-528-2676 (outside the U.S.) for further assistance. This restriction does not apply to the freely available Teacher’s Package Review Copies.

Ordering a single copy for review

If you wish to review the materials for a particular role simulation to decide whether you’d like to use it, a PDF, or soft copy, version of the Teacher’s Package for the simulation is available as a free download from the description page of most role simulations and case studies. All Teacher’s Packages include copies of all participant materials. In addition, some Teacher’s Packages (but not all) include additional teaching materials such as teaching notes or overhead masters.

Ordering copies for multiple participants

To order multiple copies of a role simulation for use in a course or workshop, simply enter the total number of participants in the box next to “Quantity.” There is no need to calculate how many of each role is required.

If you are ordering hard copies, the Teaching Negotiation Resource Center will calculate the appropriate numbers of each role to provide, based on the total number of participants. For example, if you wish to order a 2-party role simulation for use with a class of 30 students, you would enter “30” in the box next to “Quantity.” You then would receive 15 copies of one role and 15 copies of the other role, for use with your 30 participants. As another example, if you ordered 30 participant copies of a 6-party role simulation, you would receive 5 copies of each role.

In the event that the number of participant copies you order is not evenly divisible by the number of roles in the simulation, you will receive extra copies of one or more roles. Participants receiving the extra roles may partner with other participants playing the same role, thus negotiating as a team. So, for instance, if you ordered 31 copies of a 2-party role simulation, you would receive 15 copies of the first role and 16 copies of the second role. One of the participants playing the second role would partner with another participant playing that same role, and the two would negotiate as a team.