The standard vision of disaster is that it strikes—perhaps out of nowhere and sometimes after ample but ignored warnings. When it does, so the vision goes, all debate about its existence is suspended as people scramble to contain or remove it.
But what happens when disaster creeps? There is no call to arms because the disaster is silent and forms slowly. Unless someone is astute enough to spot its signs, the full threat may not be seen until remedy is beyond reach.
We routinely chart and scrutinize our projects and plans, but that very process encourages positive thinking. Anyone who has sat through a staff meeting knows how often such sessions turn into pep rallies or, at the least, progress reports. They seldom become "lack of progress reports," and even if they do, attention is paid to the identified problems, the ones that the department is willing to acknowledge. So often, problems exist that everyone knows about but no one discusses. At other times, the problem may be unknown but is lurking just outside of our campfires. Mentioning a problem that may arrive sometime way out there in the future is a good way to gain a reputation as a kook.
I have a modest proposal: All large organizations should charge three to five bright, creative, and somewhat eccentric people with the sole task of identifying disasters that may come from or afflict any area, department, and aspect of the organization's operations. Those who would argue that their departments are already expected to do such scouting miss the fact that their ambitious actors are reluctant to play Chicken Little. The disaster whistle-blowing section should be composed of independent thinkers who aren't angling for a corner office but whose sole passion is rooting out the makings of events that may clobber the organization in 5 or 10 years. They should have the power to go anywhere and ask any questions without retaliation. Will all of their warnings have merit? Of course not. But business as usual does not have an impressive record of catching disasters in their infancy.
Michael Wade writes Execupundit.com, an eclectic combination of management advice, observations, and links. A partner with the Phoenix firm of Sanders Wade Rodarte Consulting Inc., he has advised private and public-sector organizations for more than 30 years.