We Often Predict – But We Fail to Anticipate

By Guy Higgins

I was listening to a webinar recently, and I heard the presenter say that Superstorm Sandy was unpredictable.  That kind of set me off (which happens a lot these days) and has brought me to my old reliable goose-quill pen and inkpot here (okay, so it’s a MacBook Pro and MS Word).  First, I looked up “predict.”  Here’s a definition (not mine): “A prediction is a statement about the way things will (emphasis is mine) happen in the future, often but not always based on experience or knowledge.”

So next I looked up “anticipate.”  Here’s that definition: “Regard as probable.”  I resonate much better with this the term “anticipate” – “We anticipate that there will be between five and twenty hurricanes in 2013.”  That means that there is some probability (which we could capture as a number, say probability of 0.80) of our experiencing between five and twenty hurricanes in 2013.

On the other hand, suppose someone says, “We predict that there will be between five and twenty hurricanes in 2013.”  Did you feel like that statement is more credible?  I’m betting you did, and you felt that way because “predict” carries with it a weight that it really doesn’t deserve.  It conveys certainty that doesn’t exist.  Or if it is certain (I predict that there will be between zero and a million hurricanes this year), then it’s without value because it is so broad as to be without any use.

Now, back to Sandy.  Small rant – Sandy was not a superstorm.  It was a relatively weak, but slowly moving, late-season hurricane.  It caused as much damage as it did because it made landfall at a somewhat higher than normal high tide – AND it made landfall at a particularly vulnerable spot on the U.S. east coast.  Remember that old question about a tree falling but no one is there to hear it?  Well, if Sandy had made landfall somewhere that was significantly less developed than the New York/New Jersey coast, would it have been a considered a superstorm?  As an aside to my aside, I made a rough calculation of the probability of a Sandy-like storm and figured out that there was a better than even chance of NYC experiencing one such storm in forty years.  Turns out, looking at the historical record, that there have been five such storms (including Sandy) in the last 200 years.  Average – once every forty years.

The presenter in the webinar I attended said Sandy was unpredictable.  Okay, in the sense that sometime in, say, August 2012, could someone have predicted that a late-season, slow moving hurricane would have made landfall in such a position as to drive a significant storm surge through the Hudson River Narrows to flood lower Manhattan?  No, they really could not.  That said, a symposium of engineers (including the Army Corps of Engineers) met in (guess where) New York City in 2009 and told Mayor Bloomberg that a seriously damaging hurricane – one that would flood lower Manhattan, was “inevitable.”

The engineers weren’t telling the mayor that such a disaster was imminent, but they were telling him that, given that no one was planning to abandon New York City, the probabilities of such a disaster were mounting, and he should thinking about what to do to prepare for it.

The nasty thing with probabilities is that just because your chance of winning the lottery (or being struck by a disaster) is, say, one in 100,000,000,000 doesn’t mean that it won’t happen before lunchtime today.

Back to the point, while you cannot predict (implying certainty) when you will experience some significant disruption (think about something really nasty) to your operations, you can anticipate that it will happen, and the wonderful (but weird) world of probabilities can help you figure out which are the ones for which you most need to prepare.

The difference between a disruption and a disaster is the level of your preparedness to respond to the event itself.  If you’re ready (planning done, training done, plan exercised), you are very much less likely to be experiencing a disaster than if you look up when an event occurs and say, “Holy mackerel, what do we do now?”

In the world of business continuity, the two things that help you start out on the road to dealing with a disruption and not having New York City’s experience with the disaster or Hurricane Sandy are 1) a Risk and Vulnerability Assessment (what are the real risks and threats to which I’m exposed) and 2) a Business Impact Analysis (what are the impacts if I actually realize one of those risks or threats).  These two efforts, combined, allow you to prioritize your potential disruptions and apply your planning resources to those that are most likely to become a disaster if you’re not prepared.

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