This week’s New Yorker Financial Page, the weekly column by The Wisdom of Crowds author James Surowiecki, certainly caught my attention. Since reporting and writing this story several months ago about what we can learn from high-profile organizational disasters (9/11, the Columbia shuttle accident, and the Jayson Blair fraud at the New York Ttimes), I’ve been intrigued by how large-scale failures usually occur from the smallest of actions. Whether it’s merely labeling something incorrectly (as was the case in the way the debris strike of the Columbia shuttle was labeled) or overlooking the warnings of a colleague (as happened in the management of Jayson Blair’s performance), everyday actions can have tremendous consequences.
And now, Surowiecki’s column introduces further proof that failures are rarely true surprises. A recent study by the Institute for Crisis Management found that only one-fourth of business crises are truly results of a curveball; most simmer rather than spike. While I’m all for optimism to a point, I too believe the culprit is that too many overconfident execs are delusional optimists, blindly believing the biggest problem can’t happen and overlooking the small stuff on route to that end. As Surowiecki says, “it’s hard to prepare for the worst when you think you’re the best.”