Skip to content

Can You Predict A Disaster Before It Happens?

What can we do to avoid disaster? New research highlights the key indicators for identifying and preventing catastrophe
What can we do to avoid disaster? New research highlights the key indicators for identifying and preventing catastrophe
  • Disasters do not always come as a shock and, in many cases, are completely avoidable
  • Leaders are often too lax and ignore the needs of the people they are responsible for – adding fuel to a growing fire
  • Leaders need to check their priorities and listen to their teams in order to avoid predictable disasters

Disaster can strike at any time. Sometimes, it will be an “act of god” – something that nobody saw coming and had little control over that turns someone’s world upside down. Sometimes disasters will occur as the result of a series of increasingly problematic events. In the event of the latter, one other unpleasant thing to note is that, quite often, such circumstances are caused by people.

Take, for example, the devastating fire at the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. Whilst, thankfully, nobody was harmed, images of the still smouldering roof sent the world into a mild state of mourning. The historic cathedral was beloved by people all over the world, an icon of Paris in a city of iconic structures that people travelled thousands of miles to see. A tragedy indeed.

But the fire did not start out of nowhere – the result of a rogue lightening bolt. It was, in all likelihood, entirely avoidable. New research from Professor Jérôme Barthelemy at ESSEC Business School examined the build-up to the fire of Notre Dame, and found that not all was as it should be.

Predicting The Future

Whilst acknowledging that there are many physical errors that could have caused the fire; such as a poorly extinguished cigarette, or a faulty wire, Professor Barthelemy’s research explored the errors made by the building’s management.

His research identified two categories of error; active and latent.

Active errors are defined as human failings, and latent errors concern the results of poor decision-making within an organisation. For example, one latent error found in the case of the Notre Dame fire was a flawed fire alarm system which, although reported numerous times, was not fixed, highlighting that fire safety was not high on the list of managerial priorities.

The fire at the Notre Dame is what Professor Barthelemy calls a “predictable surprise”. This means, he explains, that whilst events like these will often come as a surprise to management, they really shouldn’t, as the issues that could potentially cause harm – such as faulty fire alarms – have been highlighted to management a number of times previously.

So how can we distinguish between the unexpected and the predicable when tragedy occurs? Professor Barthelemy’s study identified four characteristics of predictable surprises;

  • One: Leaders are notified that a problem exists; such as the fire alarm issues at the Notre Dame being reported, but do not act,
  • Two: Concerns are raised by a wider network of interested parties, but leaders fail to act. In the case of the Notre Dame fire, Professor Barthelemy says that security guards had raised concerns regarding fire prevention systems following a series of false alarms being triggered, and a decrease in staffing. No action to address these was taken.
  • Three: Leaders realise that fixing the problem may result in a cause a significant cost in the short term and, as a result, choose to delay taking action, or might seek alternative, cheaper and ultimately inferior solutions
  • Four: Leaders understand that fixing the problem involves challenging the status quo, which leads to resistance. A key example of this is when the management of the Notre Dame cathedral refused the clergy’s requests to add electric fire alarms, because it would have changed the look of the building.

Professor Barthelemy’s research states that, from these four stages, a series a simple actions can be taken in order to prevent such tragedies occurring in the first place. The key is in effective communication.

Forewarned Is Forearmed

Leaders, the research suggests, have a responsibility to; identify the problems, acknowledge that the problems have been identified, respond to the problems, and make sure that the responses to the problems remain effective.

Whilst not all tragedies can be avoided, by following such steps, it is possible that a greater number can be stopped before they occur. Going further, in the aftermath of those few disasters which do still occur – whether as a result of human error or completely out of the blue – a willingness for managers to learn from their mistakes can provide further protections for future.

Aside of stopping disaster in its tracks, by placing more focus on listening and responding to staff when they highlight their concerns, not only can managers avoided disaster but such actions can also boost company and employee morale. Research has shown that an engaged and fulfilled workforce is a more productive one – boosting performance and company profit as a result.

Whilst, as Professor Barthelemy points out, lessons seem to have been learned from the Notre Dame tragedy, with the French Ministry of Culture actioning an audit of French cathedrals, checking their electrical safety, and the cathedral’s caretakers installing fireproof partitions and a sprinkler system in their repairs, such actions can only go so far in recovering what was lost. The 13th century wooden structure and spire cannot be replaced.

So, whilst costly fixes to potential or far-off problems might be hard to stomach, the long-term gain stands to far outweigh any short-term losses. As the old saying goes, fail to prepare – prepare to fail.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: