Earlier this year I was involved in a talk led by Gayatri Kamath in which she discussed a serious incident at the Apollo Theatre in London in 2013. A large number of people were injured after part of the building collapsed due to water build-up in the plaster. On speaking to one of those with knowledge of the situation Gaytri had been told that it couldn’t have been prevented because there was no documented evidence of such a thing happening before. Did we, she asked the audience in 2017, agree that such an unexpected thing couldn’t be prevented?
It’s fair to say that the question divided the room. Some said that you can’t prevent the unexpected, by definition. Even if that is technically true (and I’m not sure it is) it’s not a very useful answer.
I, and a few others, spoke up for the other side—that the unexpected can be avoided. Or at least, the odds of unexpected things having serious negative consequence can be improved. And I think that’s true even if those unexpected things have not happened before, or not been thought of. Here are some examples…
When I go out of the house I always make sure I have some money, my phone, any my keys. Even if I forget my keys—or if I get into difficulty some distance from home—then being able to make a phone call and pay for something is always a useful general capability.
My wife has a different approach. She doesn’t take money or a phone if the trip doesn’t warrant it (because they’ll be safer locked in the house) but does have particularly good relationships many people. This is her mitigation. Once she did forget her keys, and there wasn’t anyone else in the house. When I returned some time later I discovered that she had taken shelter across the road with a neighbour, and between them they’d got through most of a bottle of white wine. Not a bad outcome.
In the corporate world there is a similar skill, although it has a dull name: stakeholder management. In theory you shouldn’t need to do “stakeholder management”, because everyone should be making rational judgements and communicating their plans clearly in advance. But the real world is different, which is why successful project and programme managers are good at stakeholder management. As a result they significantly reduce the chances of nasty surprises, and find unexpected sources of help.
In my own world of digital delivery, delivering a project or product incrementally radically increases the chances of success. There is frequent feedback—to expose uncertainties and unknowns—and the constant opportunity to walk away ensures minimal losses if something really bad does happen.
None of this prevents the unexpected, and I’m not sure I have the answer to the Apollo Theatre calamity. But I hope this shows that some techniques and mechanisms are available to significantly protect against unknown unknowns.