Can your organisation anticipate wildfires?

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This is blog is about wicked organisational problems, but first I want you to consider wildfires.

Every year we read about wildfires in California that wreak havoc and cause tens of millions of Dollars of damage. People in fire zones are counselled about creating “defensible spaces” around their homes (e.g. move flammable vegetation from within 15 feet of any structure). However, this is just a base level of knowledge and does little for those who need to assess emergent risk or those who need to deploy a “sixth sense” or anticipatory awareness to predict future events.

Imagine you have a house in California. You are not a fire expert and you have been given information that fires are “under control” within fifteen miles of your home. You live on a mountain, you can see the fires way off in the distance and a morning mist hanging over the forest that leads up to your home. What knowledge skills and experience would you need, or have access to, in order to predict the following event?


Ten miles way, downslope from you, a fire has been smouldering under the cover of a natural phenomenon called an inversion layer. This layer occurs when an invisible band of cool night air settles over a canyon or valley. As the day breaks, the band of cool air remains sunken, creating a lid over any warm air rising below.

The inversion layer begins to lift about midday, and, as it lifts, it pulls more fresh air into the canyon, feeding the unseen flames. The rising heat begins an uphill march and soon creates a fireline that devours 100-foot-tall pine trees in its path as it speeds north toward your home.

Fire crews would later say it covered two miles in four minutes. By the time you understand what is happening, your escape route is cut off.

Now, back to my question, what level of knowledge, skills and experience would you need, or have access to, in order to have predicted this – consider that even the fire crews in this event failed to pick up on the inversion layer and anticipate the threat?

Welcome to a wicked organisational problem…

Over the last few years, I have found myself working with more and more organisations who want to do a better job of anticipating change. A typical request would be, “we want to do a better job of anticipating and innovating, and we want to do it quicker that we have before.” So, who is responsible for developing this anticipatory ability? In the organisations I have been working with this has been a Knowledge Management or Learning & Development conversation. So, how would you address the challenge?

The need to anticipate is obvious enough – just look at the acceleration/impact of innovation/change forces upon organisations. In simple terms, the ability to anticipate change quickly could bring about enhanced competitive advantage (understanding emerging customer needs, for example), but it could also be about the identification of Black Swan (low probability/high impact) events or the surfacing of unintended consequences from planned actions. To do this two essential ingredients are required. On the one hand, credible data/information/knowledge. And on the other, the capability to acquire/share/deploy/develop credible data/information/knowledge, underpinned by “anticipatory awareness.”

The organisational language of “anticipation” is still under development and credit has to go to Dave Snowden for helping to shape my narrative. My work over the last couple of years has led me to explore neuroscience and neurorehabilitation. Here, I found the building blocks for “anticipatory awareness” experiments in organisations.

I have taken a blended approach, synthesising the work of Crosson et al.’s Pyramid of awareness (1989) and Toglia & Kirk’s Dynamic Comprehensive Model of Awareness (2002) – the former being hierarchical and the latter being more about an interconnected understanding of dynamic variables.

To begin, consider three levels of organisational anticipation:

  • Intellectual Awareness: the ability to understand problems – a space where data/information/knowledge increases understanding.
  • Emergent Awareness – requires “intellectual awareness”: the ability to recognise a problem as it is happening (useful in complex environments) – a space where people have to trust the opinions others as opposed to relying on their own perception of the world (links complex risk assessment and IRGC the risk governance framework).
  • Anticipatory Awareness – requires “emergent awareness” and “intellectual awareness”: the ability of foresight – a space where people link actions with consequences (requiring abstract reasoning)

In order to improve anticipation, an organisation needs to work across all three areas. I believe that this hierarchical approach is a useful tool for progressing understanding of what is required for “anticipation.” However, it is also unpalatable for those of us who accept organisations to be complex (why wouldn’t you?), as the approach doesn’t convey the dynamics of the capability we are looking to develop.

This is where the dynamic interplay of a further four characteristics come into consideration:

  • Knowledge/skills/experience (e.g. pattern recognition capability) of the individual/group/team/wider community.
  • Task demands – (intrinsic) characteristics of the data/information/knowledge; (germane) effort to organise into a schema; (extraneous) external influences (e.g. culture, time, etc.)
  • Beliefs (e.g. considerations of bias in an organisation operating in a liberal market economy).
  • Context

This type of synthesis provides a good foundation for the development/understanding of organisational anticipation. The practicalities of developing this capability or measuring the results/impact from a heightened state of awareness are for a different conversation, but I hope you find this to be a good starting point for developing your own experiments for practice.

More than this, I hope it helps you to anticipate wildfires that could impact your organisation.

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