Warning Signs: Channeling Cassandra to Fortify Your Mission

By Melanie Lockwood Herman

I’ve just finished a fascinating book about real-world “Cassandras” – prophets of myriad disasters, who, like the Cassandra of Greek Mythology, were ignored, ridiculed, and ultimately proven prescient. In Warnings: Finding Cassandras to Stop Catastrophes, Richard A. Clarke and R.P. Eddy take the reader on a tour that includes chapters about the warnings issued by data-inspired professionals from diverse disciplines who forecast a devastating hurricane, mining disasters, gene editing, the rise of terror groups, a worldwide pandemic, and much more.

Why We Rebuke Those Who Warn

The authors offer several compelling explanations for the tendency to rebuke individuals who sound the alarm about impending risk events or draw attention to an agency or society’s lack of readiness. Do any of these phenomena feel familiar? I imagine these interesting reasons will resonate with risk professionals. For example:

  • The Sophistication Effect: With education comes “ammunition” with which to “shoot down facts and arguments incongruent with their own position.”
  • Personal or Professional Investment: Clarke and Eddy write that “People with something to lose from the revelation of a risk, or from the solutions, may criticize Cassandras for illegitimate reasons based on this self-interest…”
  • Non-Expert Rejection: Individuals who aren’t ‘experts’ sometimes waive off warnings because they have a “vested interest either in keeping things as they are, or otherwise not acting to prevent or mitigate the disaster.”
  • Agenda Inertia: Clarke and Eddy describe “a force that concentrates focus on issues already in the plan. Unanticipated threats, ones that the leadership didn’t see coming and doesn’t really want to deal with, tend to have a difficult time crowding out preconceived agenda items.”
  • Magnitude Overload: The authors explain that the sheer size or magnitude of a risk may lead managers to “shut down” or abdicate responsibility for strategies to build resilience or develop coping strategies.

How to Channel Cassandra

  1. Focus on possibilities, not probabilities. Clarke and Eddy remind us that “If data is in short supply, don’t worry about probability. Probability is not likely to be a useful measure when dealing with the risk of a disaster that has never occurred before, or only happened at great intervals.” Here here!! In NRMC’s experience, many risk teams get bogged down trying to sort and resort their unwieldy risk registers based on wild guesses about the likelihood or probability of never-before-experienced, dire future risk events. What do the most worrisome risks have in common at a typical nonprofit client? They are possible future events: the organization hasn’t yet faced the circumstances and downside consequences that nightmares are made of.
  2. Tune in to inconvenient truths. What are the inconvenient truths facing your nonprofit? What facts, possibilities, or turn of events would make it very difficult—or impossible—to achieve your #1 strategic priority? What is your mission’s Achilles’ Heel?
  3. Appreciate, don’t denigrate the worriers. Those who worry about the ‘what ifs’ should be your allies in safeguarding your nonprofit’s mission. Harness that energy by enlisting the worriers as risk champions and participants in risk exercises. For help designing a Risk Bow Tie or Risk Hourglass workshop to “unpack” your top risks and find inspiration for preventive and responsive strategies, contact our team!
  4. Scrutinize the harmful effects of hierarchy. Clarke and Eddy describe “respect for authority” as “another heuristic” that can “interfere with accurate decision making and become a bias.” In the article “Psychological biases and heuristics in the context of foresight and scenario processes,” the authors succinctly define ‘heuristics’ as “mental shortcuts or simple rules that enable an individual to engage with its surroundings in an efficient way.”Clarke and Eddy make the correlation between deference to leaders and the reluctance to challenge those in authority positions to this definition of heuristics. In their chapter on Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, the authors note that this barrier “prevented the junior employees at the SEC from thorough investigating a highly respected denizen of the business community.” To test the negative impacts of hierarchy in your nonprofit, ask:
    • Are there disincentives to reporting bad news to higher-ups?
    • Do any team members fear being the ‘messenger’ of bad news?
    • Are senior leaders accessible or walled off?
  5. Celebrate sentinels. An individual with “sentinel intelligence” is someone with a canny ability to see clearly through a “fog of indicators.” Rally team members who are skilled at sorting the signals from the noise to join the risk team for scenario planning exercises and risk action planning. Your mission will benefit from the resilience of their foresight, and this example will help your team members be encouraged and feel comfortable speaking out in the future.

It can take great courage to sound the alarm, especially when the forecast is gloomy, or casts doubt on widely held views or proud plans. Nonprofit leaders who reward their “Cassandras” by channeling their warnings into productive conversations about risks will be better prepared to face any disaster. Recognize the value of the foresight provided by your in-house Cassandras. Resolve to make the time—and create comfortable spaces—to talk about the what-ifs. Structure these conversations as powerful opportunities to unearth weaknesses, create contingency plans, and inspire confidence that your mission is ready for what’s next.

Melanie Lockwood Herman is the Executive Director of the Nonprofit Risk Management Center. She welcomes your questions, comments, and stories about celebrating your in-house Cassandras or how to build resilience through recognizing the warning signs. Melanie can be reached at 703.777.3504 or Melanie@nonprofitrisk.org.