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

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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

Predictable Surprises Attributes

Author: Max H. Bazerman and Michael D. Watkins
Publisher: Harvard Business School Publishing, 2004