Cassandras and the Initial Occurrence Syndrom

The future is female. Palm readers, priestesses, and witches have been associated for millennia with fortune telling and foreseeing. While palm readers and fortune tellers don’t get much respect, virgin priestesses at the Oracle in Delphi were held in high regard. Kinds and generals would do long journeys to see what their lucky stars are and how they could pull the Gods on their sides.

One beautiful daughter of Trojan king Priamos and his wife Hekabe drew the Gods attention, because she had the gift of seeing the future. Already back then some powerful men assaulted women. None other than Apollon, the God of music and art, tried to ‘seduce’ this princess. And when she refused he cursed her. Neither her foreseeing nor those of her future descendants would be believed. Her name became synonymous for some tragedy that befalls people although she had warned them before. The cursed princess’ name was Cassandra.

Unbelieving Cassandra

This name stuck until present times for people, most often experts, who discovered an unsettling trend or a dangerous future, and tried to warn others, but their warnings were ignored.

Richard Clarke and R.P. Eddy study in their book Warnings: Finding Cassandras to Stop Catastrophes how to distinguish real Cassandras from fake ones and understand the dynamics behind our tendency to ignore Cassandras.

According Clarke and Eddy, some of the common characteristics among such “warners” who were ignored but proven correct when the catastrophe struck, were:

  • they were technical experts in their field;
  • they were very driven by data;
  • they were first principle/orthogonal thinkers;
  • they have a high sense of personal responsibility;
  • many of them had off-putting personalities / high anxiety

Knowing this allows us to separate the crazies from the true Cassandras, those who have a high probability of being right with their warnings, based on their expertise and data that they are basing their analysis. But the warner itself is only one of four dimensions to judge a warning. The four dimensions are:

  1. Warning, threat or risk
  2. Decision maker and audience that has to react
  3. The foreseer or potential Cassandra
  4. The critics that reject or defuse the warning

To judge the warning from a Cassandra requires to think in scenarios and possibilities, while putting personal beliefs aside. Rather you should ask

  • Is the warning’s scenario possible?
  • Is the Cassandra an originally thinking expert with data?
  • Do the critics have personal interest or stakes in the future that interfering with their own judgment?
  • What can and needs to be done by whom and when?

Initial Occurrence Syndrome

As straight forward as this seems, other factors can lead to a decision making sclerosis. Not so long ago a warning that terrorists would use airplanes to fly it into skyscrapers seemed more like a scenario out of a bad movie. It had never happened before. The reaction was more like “Yeah, maybe, but not really.” Until it happened.

Just because it hasn’t happened before doesn’t mean it will never happen. We call this the Initial Occurrence Syndrome. Admittedly, it’s difficult to plan for such a ‘Black Swan’-scenario, but this is where techniques from the Foresight Mindset-toolkit come in. Scenario planning with possible, probable, and preferable futures help to ‘think the unthinkable’ and prepare organizations mentally to the possibility of such events.

In fact, it’s more likely that a never before event happens than the infinite continuation of the world as we know it today. Ask every Kodak, Nokia, and any other company that was on top of the world with their business and technology, and though they had many Cassandras in their organizations, they fell victim on those syndromes and biases that prevented them from reacting.

This article has also been published in German.

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