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

Predictable Surprises: The Disasters You Should Have Seen Coming and How to Prevent Them. By Max H. Bazerman and Michael D. Watkins. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2004. 336 pages. $27.50.

Authors Max Bazerman of the Harvard Business School, and Michael Watkins, founder of Genesis Advisers, a leadership and strategy consultancy, define a predictable surprise as "an event or 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." The goal of Predictable Surprises is to help leaders prevent looming catastrophes that are so large and complex that even though they may realize a crisis is developing, they are unable to generate an effective response. The book is well written and provides a superb analysis of a number of past surprises. The authors draw specific conclusions leading to a framework that leaders can use to counter such surprises.

Predictable Surprises is logically organized in a manner that directly contributes to rapid understanding. Chapter One sets the stage for the remainder of the book. It provides an explanation of the phenomenon of a predictable surprise and describes its six characteristics. The book is then divided into three parts. Part I describes two prototypical surprises, the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks and the collapse of Enron. Part II explores why predictable surprises occur, specifically why leaders do not act on what they know to prevent such occurrences. Part III lays out the aforementioned framework to prevent surprise. The final chapter reviews several developing crises that should be acted on by contemporary leaders. While Predictable Surprises is a valuable work, certainly worth reading, the concept of predictable or inevitable surprise is not new with this book.

In 2003, the same year that Bazerman and Watkins published an article "Predictable Surprises" in the Harvard Business Review that led to this book, Peter Schwartz described essentially the same phenomenon in a book titled Inevitable Surprise. Both books describe and analyze the same concept and provide examples, often the same examples. For instance, both books assert that terrorist attacks of an 11 September 2001 magnitude were foreseeable. Both books point out that many analysts who closely followed terrorism predicted it was a matter of time until such attacks occurred, and yet our strategic leaders were unable to prevent them. The books also explore coming surprises and again use some of the same examples, such as global warming and America's looming fiscal crisis. For those who may be reluctant to pick up this book because they have already read Inevitable Surprises, it should be noted that the Bazerman and Watkins book has added utility. While Inevitable Surprises addressed the root causes of predictable surprise and strategies to deal with them, it did so in a passing fashion. The manner with which Bazerman and Watkins examine and analyze these two aspects distinguishes their book and makes it particularly valuable.

Bazerman and Watkins provide a more in-depth examination of the reasons, rooted in the human condition, which often seem to render strategic leaders incapable of preventing a foreseeable crisis. They identify failure to prevent predictable surprise as occurring on three levels: cognitive, organizational, and political. Cognitive failures are rooted in a variety of human biases. The authors also explore four types of organizational failure, including failure to scan the environment to identify threats and failure to integrate and analyze information from multiple sources. They then analyze several political factors that contribute to the likelihood of a predictable surprise, various forms of special interests that cause individuals or groups to act out of self-interest with little regard for the effects of their actions. Their analysis is compelling and seems complete. By examining the root causes of surprise, the authors are postured to draw conclusions and make recommendations designed to help leaders with future crises.

What makes Predictable Surprises especially worth the time to read it is Part III. Chapters 7, 8, and 9 provide leaders with a framework to prevent predictable surprises. Bazerman and Watkins argue that leaders must instill in their organizations the ability to do three things: recognize emerging threats, prioritize them, and mobilize an effective response. They provide decisionmakers with sound analysis and practical examples of when and how to use the suggested techniques, tools, tactics, and methodologies.

Throughout Predictable Surprises, the authors emphasize the role of leadership and articulate an unwavering belief that it is possible for good leadership to make a difference. By furnishing convincing evidence that many future problems can be anticipated, the authors provide insight and understanding about the cognitive, organizational, and political factors at work in any organization that may inhibit an effective response to looming disasters. In so doing, Bazerman and Watkins provide leaders the analytical tools and framework to productively examine their own organizations.

Reviewed by Colonel Mark J. Eshelman, Director, Defense Support to Civil Authorities, Department of Command, Leadership, and Management, US Army War College.
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Author:Eshelman, Mark J.
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2006
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