How firms can overcome the ‘paradox of preparedness’

George Day of the Wharton School and global management consultant Roger Dennis offer four pieces of advice for firms who want to get ahead of looming problems.

George Day, a marketing professor emeritus at the Wharton School, along with global management consultant Roger Dennis, address the dilemma of credibly anticipating a looming problem that could disrupt an organization with timing and consequences still uncertain. The frequent result, they explain, is inaction.

Dominoes about to fall on a tiny person holding a briefcase

This is what they describe as the “paradox of preparedness.”

As one example, they cite the warning from Bill Gates in a TED Talk in 2015 about the under-preparedness of the world for the next pandemic. Often, they explain, biases from leaders will compound with warning messages that are too cautious. A report compiled by two New Zealand energy and retail companies during the 2013-16 outbreak of the Ebola virus in Africa warned the private sector and government of at-risk links in the supply chain should another pandemic surface—yet, no action was taken, and by the time the report was assessed by companies following the COVID-19 outbreak in China, it was too late.

The key, they say, is to get—and keep—leaderships’ attention. “To avoid oversaturating their attention resource with immediate and pressing issues, two principles need to be observed,” the authors write. They advocate setting “gatekeepers” on issues, as well as finding creative ways to get leaderships’ attention, avoiding dense reports in PowerPoint presentations.

Day and Dennis list four points of action to be prepared:

Start by learning from experience. Firms are advised to, in a transparent manner, locate recent instances of being late to see threats and opportunities to learn from them. “The aim is not to finger-point or scapegoat but to surface persistent patterns in collective foresight or inattention that can be corrected or strengthened,” they say.
Stay alert to anomalies. “Anomalies are weak signals that are in some way surprising because they don’t fit received wisdom but are not entirely clear in significance,” the authors say. “Many anomalies are missed or ignored because people are susceptible to confirmation bias.” Firms should find a compelling narrative that places the anomaly in context and provides a clearer idea of what might happen if an anomaly becomes reality.
Engage the organization. In the face of major change, organizations should, they write, prepare for change by means of collaboration, ideally in an immersive or interactive way. Think: role-playing simulations.
Learn from the future. “Preparations against possible threats can be simulated with scenarios,” they write. “This is a method of rehearsing the future to avoid surprises.” Leaders can identify “plausible futures” to build resilience. “This provokes a healthy tension that is an essential fuel to collective learning,” they add.

Read more at Knowledge at Wharton.