Cassandra or The Future is Female

Palm readers, priestesses and witches have been associated with predictions and divination for millennia. While palm readers, witches, or tea brewers receive little social respect, virgin priestesses, such as in the Oracle of Delphi, were held in high esteem. Kings and army commanders made arduous journeys to find out whether the favor of the gods was inclined towards them for upcoming political and military tasks.

A beautiful daughter of the Trojan king Priam and his wife Hecabe caught the attention of the gods. She possessed the gift of being able to predict the future. Even then, many a powerful man did not think much of sexually harassing women. None other than Apollo, the god of music and art, made a pass at the princess. But when she refused his advances, he cursed her. Neither she nor her descendants were to be believed in the predictions from now on. Her name became a synonym for warnings that were not believed, and later, as a tragedy, overtook the people. The name of the cursed princess was Cassandra.

Ignored Cassandra

This name stuck until the present to the experts who recognize startling trends or a dangerous future and try to warn others about it. Cassandra calls represent a whole category of predictions.

Richard Clarke and R.P. Eddy discuss Cassandras in their book Warnings: Finding Cassandras to Stop Catastrophes and how to recognize them and the dynamics of ignoring and not acting that often follow. According to the two authors, some of the common criteria of such ‘warnings’ that were not heeded but were confirmed by the occurrence of the event are as follows

  • they are experts in their field;
  • they work in a very data-driven way
  • they think in terms of basic principles or are lateral thinkers;
  • they feel personally responsible;
  • many of them had rather repulsive personalities or showed high nervousness

Knowing this, it is easier to separate the madmen from the true Cassandras. So to identify those who are more likely to be right with their warnings But the warners themselves represent only one of four dimensions to judge a warning. The four dimensions are:

  1. The warning, the threat or the risk
  2. The decision-makers or the audience who have to react
  3. The forecaster or possible Cassandra
  4. The critics who reject or deny the warning

To assess the warning of a Cassandra caller requires thinking in terms of scenarios and probabilities, while at the same time setting aside personal biases. The questions that should be asked are:

  • Is the warning scenario possible?
  • Is the Cassandra an original thinking expert with provable data?
  • do the critics of the warning have a personal interest or too much to lose that could conflict with the assessment of the warning?
  • What can and must be done and decided by whom and by when?

Initial Occurence Syndrom

As straightforward as this strategy may seem, other factors often lead to a freeze when it comes to decision-making. It wasn’t that long ago that the warning that terrorists could fly airplanes into skyscrapers seemed to be pulled out of thin air. It had never happened before. The reaction to such a scenario was more along the lines of “yeah sure you can imagine it, but it will never happen.” Until it did happen.

Just because it hasn’t happened before doesn’t mean it never will. We call this the Initial Occurrence Syndrome. Admittedly, it’s very hard to plan for such a black swan scenario, but that’s where the Foresight Mindset toolbox comes in handy. Scenario planning with possible, probable and preferred futures help ‘think the unthinkable’ and mentally prepare organizations for the possibility of such events.

In fact, it is more likely that a never-before event will occur than an infinite continuation of the status quo. Just ask Kodak, Nokia, and any other company that was at the pinnacle of world dominance in its industry and business sector. And although they all had their Cassandras in their own ranks, they fell victim to this syndrome and prejudice that kept them from acting.

Leave a Reply