Public inquiries often blame those involved in the events with having committed failures of foresight. This begs the question as to whether it is possible to prevent such failures of foresight. Alternatively, the question is whether perfect foresight is possible. To try to answer this question I looked at devising a method to help us think about and therefore promote strategic foresight in order to examine what this might involve. The starting point was to look for an existing method for analysing disaster causation that might be used to promote foresight. In the end I decided to use Barry Turner's Disaster Incubation Theory.
The six stages of Barry Turner's Disaster Incubation Theory takes the following shape:
The book explains how the model was developed from that proposed by Turner to what is shown below:
In addition to the model derived from Turner's work, the book discusses the issues that need to be addressed and the questions that need to be asked in order to develop foresight. In terms of the issues, the book recommends that organisations need to define what is critical because we do not have the time or other resources to examine every possible pitfall faced by the organisation. This is based on the notion of critical success factors where, in this instance, criticality is based on the harm that may befall not only the organisation as a whole but also the level at which it may occur. This enables us to see where an occurrence may be catastrophic at one level within an organisation but may have little effect on the organisation overall. This provides us with the critical success factor and the hierarchy as the first two dimensions of our thinking. Central to the notion of failure of foresight is a failure to learn (failure of hindsight) from past experience: it is often the case that while we may know of lessons from the past, we fail to incorporate those lesson into our practices and operational routines: this has been labelled a failure of active learning. In order to mitigate this potential source of failure, the recommended process explicitly makes those engaged think about the learning process. It therefore divides Operations into four parts. These parts being "learn" where lessons are collected from previous experience, "anticipate" where the organisation anticipates how and where these lessons from the past may be useful, "adapt" where the organisation adapts its routines and procedures to incorporate the lessons and "enact" where management ensures the new ways of working are adopted and used within the organisation.
The three dimensions of critical success factors, hierarchy and operations are structured as a catalytic cube to promote thinking about each problem space.
In support of the analytical process, the book offers seven questions designed to focus those involved on the key sources of failure. The seven questions are a further distillation of the twenty questions developed during my doctoral research that, in turn, were derived from over 250 ideas developed within related academic literature. The seven areas for questioning suggest that those engaged in preventing failures of foresight need to think about:
• What key individuals actually care about as this will guide their thinking and priorities and will be hidden sources of tension if they are not made explicit.
• Whether the team in place is fit for the task ahead or really quite dysfunctional.
• What has changed since the systems and processes to be used were set up and whether they were still fit for purpose.
• Whether the structure of the organisation facilitates or hinders effective communications.
• Whether all implicit or explicit assumptions used as organisational heuristics remain valid.
• Whether the natural momentum generated by everyday factors are working towards or against the espoused desired outcome.
• What the unintended consequences of the planned course of action might be.
After all these ideas are explained in the first five chapters, the final chapter of the book provides a working example based on the Yom Kippur war. It is used to illustrate how difficult foresight is in practice. What did become clear during work preparing this book was that the world was much less stable than many assume. This produced the idea of comparing a "perfect world paradigm" to the idea of chaos being the norm (normal chaos): this idea will be explored in more detail in my next book. In the end I throw out a challenge to commentators or the heads of inquiries who criticise practitioners for having a failure of foresight. The challenge for them is, before they offer such glib criticism, to show not only how, without hindsight and in the context that the failure occurred, such a failure was possible to avoid but also that it would have been reasonable to give it the priority necessary above all the other issues that faced those involved at the time.
This book entitled "The Practical Pursuit of Foresight: Disaster Incubation Theory Reimagined" is due to be published by Gower in October 2015.