As part of his “Knowledge Miles” lecture series, Profesor Michael Mainelli, Lord Mayor of the City of London, invited Commission members Professor Brian Collins CB and Professor Sir David Omand CBE to deliver a ‘fireside chat’ style online lecture. Touching on subjects including leadership, futures thinking and adopting a mindset that enables quick and flexible reactions to crises, their lecture “Preparation for a dangerous uncertain future: Combining Policy, Foresight and Experience” is available to view on the lecture series website.

The following summary of the key points raised in the lecture has kindly been provided for NPC by Huw Williams, Principal of SAMI Consulting.


As part of its “Knowledge Miles” series of talks,  Z/Yen hosted a discussion between Sir David Omand and Professor Brian Collins CB, two commissioners from the National Preparedness Commission.  The Commission’s programme of work is intended to be both strategic (recognising that what is needed to be better prepared for many shocks is the same whatever the initiating crisis or incident), and practical to encourage comprehensive actions.

Sir David is an ex Director of GCHQ and Permanent Secretary of the Cabinet and his book “How to Survive a Crisis” has just appeared in paperback. He began the discussion by noting that resilience – the ability to bounce back after a crisis – was, he suggested, the difference between using a cricket bat to hit a piece of copper pipe (which is damaged by the impact) compared with using it to strike a cricket ball (which bounces off).

This is a system-level characteristic requiring planning and preparation and, critically, investment in spares, supply chains and dormant capacity. In a crisis many of the conventional levers don’t work and the system can feel out of control – “crises manage you rather than the other way around”.

Leaders need to take control, mobilise talent, seek out innovative solutions and build “adaptive resilience” so the organisation emerges stronger after the crisis.

The main dangers are behavioural: avoidance, denial, delay, displacement, disruption, blaming the messenger. The hardest crises to deal with are the slow smouldering ones where it is harder to recognise the need for early action. We have seen from various events that it is cheaper to act early, but it can be hard to divert the organisation to focus on the one key issue.

Professor Collins, of UCL, is a vice-Chair of the Commission. He concentrated on the mindset of the leadership group needing to be open to change rather than resisting action, and focussed on solving the problem rather than having a blame culture. We are lucky in the UK that we have many bodies of expertise that can be mobilised for rapid analysis and response (he gave an example of a vulcanologist whose specialism was the Icelandic volcano that exploded disrupting flights for several days).

Increasingly, the past is not a good predictor of the future, change is often non-linear and historical statistics less valuable. We have to think of plausible futures -we need to be curious, imaginative. Tomorrow will be different – we must be prepared for difference. However, “there are no crystal balls”.

The conversation returned to the issue of avoiding a blame culture. It is crucial to learn from near misses, to use them as an opportunity to stop something more serious.

It is often a challenge to get resources mobilised – a focus on short-term efficiency is a problem. Continuous monitoring, attention to detail (eg, in sub-contracts and supply chains) and detailed system analysis are needed for effective corporate governance.  This analysis may need to go beyond the normal organisational boundaries to capture the relevant interactions.

The Q&A session covered a wide range of topics. One major issue was the ability to react quickly, expanding operations as needed. This was made more difficult by lack of resources – notably in local authorities where, due to years of austerity, there is no reserve capacity.

The organisational mindset was touched on again. Groupthink and vested interests need to be constantly challenged – perhaps actively by external “ginger groups”.  Asking “What would it take to change our mind on that?” following a final (board) judgement is one way of testing for bias.  Other cognitive biases include optimism bias (“It’ll be OK”) and perseverance bias (“If we keep at it we’ll sort it”). Short-termism is a big danger – we need serious long-term thinking with proper research.

The lessons from the Covid-19 pandemic were that resources had to be mobilised, the whole organisation has to focus.

Overall, the talk was a clear call to use a range of foresight tools to prepare for a changing world. Ongoing horizon scanning, linked with driver mapping and scenario planning, culminating in a set of contingency plans are all useful tools to help make “robust decisions in uncertain times”.



Share this story