How to Avoid Catastrophe

How to Avoid Catastrophe is a fascinating article that examines several well-known disasters, and considers the common causes that led to each incident.

For the past seven years, we have studied near misses in dozens of companies across industries from telecommunications to automobiles, at NASA, and in lab simulations. Our research reveals a pattern: Multiple near misses preceded (and foreshadowed) every disaster and business crisis we studied, and most of the misses were ignored or misread. Our work also shows that cognitive biases conspire to blind managers to the near misses.

I’m not going to lie – it’s a dry kind of article, and in a lot of ways is more about management and process. But I’ve found myself thinking about things at a larger system level lately, and was re-reading this article again today.

There’s a large part of me, core to who I am, that just… worries. I don’t know that I would define myself as pessimistic or troubled, but I skew towards the worry. And I think about worst case scenarios often, almost as a default.

So a lot of what this article focuses on speaks to me, in a very automatic way. I’m trying to pull back a little from the mindset of “See, it’s good to worry all the time” to what I think the article is really trying to say: “signals exist and sometimes our cognitive biases prevent us from recognizing them.”

Of an interesting note, the last point (“Reward Owning Up”), reminded me a lot about a favorite video of me: Astro Teller, talking about failure.

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