Every crisis needs a hero. Vienna General Hospital was in desperate need of such a figure. The mortality rate at a ward in its maternity clinic had climbed to over 15%. Enter Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis. Our hero quickly deliberated then got right to work on an answer. It wasn't informed by medical school learnings nor years of experience on the job. But his decisive action and sage advice would go on to save many lives. The result of his work continues on as an essential axiom of today...
WASH YOUR HANDS.
Noting the prevalence of maternal deaths in a particular ward, Dr. Semmelweis observed that the doctors there dissected cadavers prior to delivering babies. Their contaminated hands introduced bacteria to their patients, resulting in higher death rates than in other wards. Such practices sound outlandish now, but thus was the state of medicine in the 19th century.
Dr. Semmelweis is a pioneer of hand-washing in the medical practice across Europe. What seems like common sense (to some) today was quite the hot-take when Semmelweis introduced the idea. The scientific discovery of germs had not yet taken place. In fact, his suggestion was mocked by fellow doctors and largely dismissed during his lifetime. At age 47 he suffered a mental breakdown that some imply was spurred on by his challenges in convincing others of his scientific discovery.
What Ignaz Semmelweis experienced is actually quite prevalent. The life of a visionary that was simply ahead of his time. Some call them futurists. Others say strategic planner. But for the purposes of this post, we'll call them Cassandras.
In Greek mythology, the character Cassandra was blessed with the ability to see the future, but cursed to have no one believe her prophecies. The phenomenon manifests itself now in cases where innovators or prescient thinkers are shunned by others for their visionary insights. These are the Elizabeth Warren's predicting market crashes or Bill Gates' predicting global pandemics. The iPhone emerged as a Cassandra in the mobile phone industry, but incumbents like Blackberry failed to take them seriously in time. If you want to avoid the fate of the aforementioned or better prepare yourself for unforeseen circumstances, you need to hire a Cassandra. They are champions of strategic foresight and always peering around the corner to spot whats next. In seeking to find and cultivate Cassandras, here are three questions to consider.
What motivates them?
Like Dr. Semmelweis, Cassandras are motivated by lowering mortality rates. For Semmelwies it was the mortality rate of his patients. For Cassandras in a business context, it's the mortality rate for their organizations. A study by Arie de Geus (one of the earliest corporate foresight practitioners) revealed that the age of mortality for most Fortune 500 companies is under 50 years. He cited failure to evolve as the primary reason for this. Given that stagnation plays such a prevalent role in the death of many companies, Cassandras are also motivated to continuously explore novel ideas and develop new lines of business. These are the R&D directors of a company, always pushing the envelope in pursuit of breakthroughs. They anticipate uncertainties in business and are driven to prepare for decision making under such circumstances.
What challenges them?
Cassandras are tasked with keeping pace with high rates of change in technology, innovation, and rules or regulations governing those changes. Adding to that challenge, they often do so in organizations that lack timely data or appropriate timelines for assessing complex problems. They fight against the inertia of those organizations that are stubborn to change and cling to "the way things are." Cassandra Syndrome contrasts with normalcy bias, the tendency for people to believe that things will function in the future the way they have functioned in the past. Therefore, they underestimate both the likelihood of a disaster and its possible effects. This may result in situations where people fail to adequately prepare themselves for such scenarios. And on a larger scale, the failure of businesses or governments to include the populace in disaster preparations. About 70% of people reportedly display normalcy bias during a disaster.
What do they need to succeed?
Given the wide ranging nature of their work, its best to give Cassandras a long leash to explore interrelated or even unrelated topics. A key component of strategic foresight work involves comparing developments across differing industry sectors to look for overlap. This isn't the type of work that can be done under strict lock and key. The findings they uncover could very well disrupt your primary lines of business. This is a good thing. Allowing them to operate as white-hat hackers positions you to internally monitor disruptions to your business that would otherwise emerge externally. Additionally, the work of a Cassandra is not one and done. They must continuously monitor for weak signals of change and update future scenarios accordingly. Most important, the work produced by these team members requires attention at the highest levels of the organization. Thus, providing a seat at the decision making table is essential. This approach validates their work and gives a sense of purpose to their pursuits.
According to journalist, Amanda Ripley, we all react the same way when faced with mortal peril. We undergo a three-step process of denial, deliberation, and the decisive moment. The longer we take to arrive at decisive action, the more imperiled we become. Those that fail to plan for crises get stuck in the first two phases of this process and hinder their chances of survival. The business community saw this play out with Blockbuster's delayed reaction to the Netflix threat. The global community has seen this play out in pandemics throughout history.
You may not have been endowed with the gift of clairvoyance, but that's ok. It's not your job to predict the future. It's your job to prepare for it. Crises are always waiting just around the corner. Given their unpredictable nature, we must always maintain a state of readiness. Mythical prophets aren't waiting in line at the unemployment office, but the forward thinkers your company needs can certainly be found. The Cassandra moniker is a stand in the advisor, consultants, or entire business units you must enlist to help your organization prepare for the inevitable crisis to come through signal scanning and scenario planning. we published After the Virus as such an exercise. It is a report on the future to come for industries impacted by the Coronavirus pandemic. At the Center for the Future of Work, we examine the future of everything to prepare for the future of anything. There's no denying that unknown crises are always waiting just around the corner. We're ready to help you overcome that uncertainty.