Criminal Minds: The Ultimate Foresight Thinkers

What do the Yakuza, the Mafia, and the Sinaloa Cartel have in common? All three are not only criminal organizations with a variety of illegal business going on, but they are also astonishing resilient. A feat considering that they have the fiercest opponents one could imagine going after them: the government, law enforcement, or military. Still, they keep thriving and surviving, even after decapitating the organizations multiple times by capturing or killing their leaders. New flavors of criminal organizations such as ISIS or Al-Qaeda survive even after their opponents keep announcing yet another and ‘really the last final ultimate fatal’ blow against them.

Some of these organizations can be traced hundreds of years back in history. The Mafia’s roots go back some 1,000 years, the Yakuza’s at least 300 years.  There are not many entities that survived for that long. Religious organizations are some of them. But not even many countries can claim for themselves having a continuous duration over such a period of time. Companies have shown an even worse track record of survival. The only company that was in the original Dow Jones and still is there is General Electrics. And the survival rate of companies is decreasing. From 61 years to 18 years for companies listed in the S&P 500 index.

Average life of companies in the S&P index in years (rolling 7-year average)

In a time where we are trying to nurture a startup culture and encourage more people to found companies, these are troubling facts. A lot of money and benefits are thrown at startups for faster success and survival, but still the failure rates are high. It’s not necessarily the known ‘nine-out-of-ten-startups-fail’, but the numbers are still rather high.

 Y CombinatorTechStarsIsraeli High Tech
Still independently operating57%69%15-16%
Post funding29%56% 
IPO  4%

In fact, we have fewer people today starting their own company than in the past although all the hype around startups.

So why do companies have such low survival rates, while criminal organizations seem to thrive thrive? For that we have to look at the way members of deviant organizations structure and think. The Yakuza, with roughly 102,000 members (and such numbers are always difficult to guess, as there isn’t really an employee list with phone numbers to count from), has a very decentralized organizational structure. In fact, teams of 5 to 10 people form such units and they diversify in a variety of ‘businesses.’ Racketeering, drug dealing, counterfeiting, or kidnapping are just a few of them. Such a diverse portfolio gives them multiple pillars to rely on if one business should go bust.

Criminals also are well aware that whatever business they are in or tool they are using, sooner or later it will have to be replaced. The tunnel to smuggle drugs under the border? Law enforcement will find it. It’s not a question if, it’s a question when. That requires the cartel to think ahead and plan alternatives for the future.

Companies, on the other hand, tend to drink their own Kool-Aid and see their products and services as staying infinitely popular long into the future. They keep defending outdated products and put resources into maintaining the established form. That of course makes the organization vulnerable to disruptive change.

Criminal minds are forced to be foresight thinkers, because any moment law enforcement can take their current means away. That’s why crime organizations often employ a vast network of lookouts. The Sinaloa Cartel is said to have 100,000 people on its payroll, including taxi drivers, young kids playing in the street to older citizens. Those spies collect the signals that criminal minds need as early warning to stay ahead of law enforcement.

All this planning ahead, early notice of signals, constant vigilance of shifts, and readiness to grab profitable opportunities are characteristics of foresight thinkers.

Here is also more in a TEDx-talk that I have some time ago in Salzburg, Austria, elaborating on evil creativity.

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