Conference on strategic surprises at the CIA

On Wednesday, January 18th, I will be giving a conference on the topic of strategic surprise at EMLYON Business School, as part of the series “The Art of Management”.  In this context, a strategic surprise is defined as the sudden realization by an organization that it has operated on the basis of an erroneous threat assessment resulting in an inability to anticipate a serious threat to its vital interests.

While the majority of the research explains strategic surprises (such as September 11) with psychological, bureaucratic or cybernetic (absence of detection of weak signals for example) models, an in-depth research on more than 50 years of the CIA’s history shows that the origin of strategic surprises often lies with the characteristics of identity and culture of the organization.  This research was started by Milo a few years ago, and we now pursue it together.  We show how the CIA was the victim of several strategic surprises, and that these surprises are largely explained by the social construction of the organization: whom it recruits, how it trains agents and analysts, how it develops its culture, etc.  In essence, what an organization is surprised by depends on its identity. After presenting the finding about the CIA, we will discuss what lessons can be drawn from these results for businesses, particularly in the field of innovation and strategy.  We will make the case that here too, the difficulties are often cultural, and results can be improved using this mode of analysis.

If you are interested in the conference, please contact us.

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One response to “Conference on strategic surprises at the CIA

  1. Fantastic approach !!

    I still doubt whether we should call a surprise a “strategic surprise” as any surprise is ‘unplanned’.

    What I am fascinated of is

    (1) the approach to use history and to compare management practices to politics
    (2) a significant shift of paradigm in management literatur that leads us away from static thinking (often called rationallity) and towards a dynamic reality.

    ” (…) shows that the origin of strategic surprises often lies with the characteristics of identity and culture of the organization. (…)”

    In one of my publications (Just too Lazy to Lie – an epistemological answer to Harry G. Frankfurt’s ‘On Bullshit’; German Original: “Wer ehrlich ist ist nur zu faul zu lügen”) I defined ‘culture’ as a ‘state of collective self-hypnosis’.

    ‘Reality’ is a construct of a very sensitive network of ‘agreed forms and values’ which are maintained by a permanent conversation (collective) or reflections (self). To introduce new thoughts (change) means to ‘drop out’ (self) of this conversation and to ‘break’ (collective) the patterns of the ongoing conversation.

    Maintaining the ‘conversation’ stabilizes the culture; change introduces frictions and instability until a culture has agreed upon a new ‘conversation’ of self-fullfilling premises.

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