Weak signals or willful failure to perceive them?

The following is a speech I gave at this years World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The theme for this years Davos was “Resilient Dynamism” and I thought it worked well with the topic “Weak Signals” that I was about to discuss.

Actually, in a perfect world, the following was supposed to be the speech I was supposed to give, however, I wasn’t allowed to use notes or a teleprompter, so the actual presentation turned out to be what I remembered of the text below:

Reducing loss from natural disasters – Weak signals or willful failure to perceive them?

I’d like to challenge the proposition that the notion of “weak signals” assumes that the signal which predicts an event is “weak.” Because recent experience has shown me that the real weakness is our willful collective failure to perceive signals that become blindingly obvious in hindsight aka “The Neon Swan”.

Recently, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on the causes of Japan’s nuclear power plant accident. In fact, I was closely involved in the accident investigation commissioned by Japan’s national legislature. The Fukushima accident is profoundly disturbing… not simply because 250,000 residents will not be able to return for decades to an area the size of Luxembourg. It’s disturbing because it forces us to ask…

… If the Japanese, with their legendary engineering prowess and their diligent adherence to process, can’t be relied on to run a nuclear power plant… then who can?

The plant’s operator tried to maintain that the “signals were weak” – that the tsunami exceeded all their models. But there are written records of massive tsunami on that coast as far back as Europe’s Dark Ages. So how could some of the world’s brightest engineers imagine it was OK to put back-up generators in a floodable basement?

Why did no one speak up?

In certain respects, Japanese culture was the culprit. As mentioned in the final report: “our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with the program’; our groupism; and our insularity.”

I’m actually doing research into “groupthink” and I don’t think Japan can claim copyright on all those traits. Japanese may take them to the limit, but they are universal.

After almost every disaster, no matter where, newspaper readers with the benefit of hindsight shake their heads and ask, “Anyone could’ve spotted that; how could they have been so stupid?.”

I think the answer lies in the word anyone.

As individuals, we have highly evolved (and continue to learn) senses that allow us to perceive danger: for example, the pain your finger instantly reports to your brain when you stick it in a flame. Or the gag reflex that alerts you when you swallow sour milk.

Unfortunately, in groups and groupthink, we tend to lose this ability to perceive vital signals. And I think it’s fair to say, the larger the group becomes, the more perception we lose.

There are several key mechanisms to this.

One is the tendency of groups to seek homogeneity as they expand. It’s why companies usually want to hire like-minded people… people who will fit in… people who share the same perspective.

In effect, what you have is a willful effort to filter out divergent views and perspectives. So you end up with 20,000 people who can’t even spot obvious signals because they share a single set of eyes and ears.

Another mechanism has to do with hierarchy. In your body, even your little toe has the freedom to send your brain a signal it can’t ignore. And it doesn’t care if you are busy giving a speech to the World Economic Forum. If it itches, it’s going to let you know.

By contrast, rightly fearing immediate amputation… the little toe in a giant corporation would never dream of disturbing the CEO while he’s at a podium in Davos.

Similarly you get the lookout on an ocean liner who’s afraid to disturb the captain’s dinner by reporting an iceberg off the bow; or Challenger, Lehman or Sandy; and finally, you get employees at a nuclear power plant who assume it must be OK to have back-up generators in the basement.

That’s why… I feel that the… inability to perceive weak signals is about the willful failure of human groups to strive for the evolutionary sophistication of the human body.

In groups, we actively work to eliminate the diversity needed to broaden our perspective. And we deliberately inhibit the free flow of information from the extremities to the brain.

To better perceive signalsweak or otherwise – we need to embrace diversity: diverse perspectives and diverse identities, in terms of gender, ethnicity, age, and education. And we need to evolve better protocols to transmit information throughout our organizations; a resilient dynamism; especially in an increasingly complex and interconnected, multi stakeholder world.

Neon Swan

William Saito
Special Advisor at Cabinet Office (Govt. of Japan)
Named by Nikkei as one of the “100 Most Influential People for Japan,” Saito began software programming in elementary school and started his own company while still in high school and was named Entrepreneur of the Year in 1998 (by Ernst & Young, NASDAQ and USA Today). As one of the world’s leading authorities on cybersecurity.

After selling his business to Microsoft, he moved to Tokyo in 2005 and founded InTecur, a venture capital firm. In 2011, he served as the Chief Technology Officer of the National Diet’s (Parliament) Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission. Later that year, he was named as both a Young Global Leader and Global Agenda Council member for World Economic Forum (WEF) and subsequently been named to its Foundation Board. In 2012, Saito was appointed to a council on national strategy and policy that reported directly to the Prime Minister of Japan.

Saito also advises several national governments around the globe. In Japan, he has served as an advisor to Japanese ministries; the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science; the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST); the Information Technology Promotion Agency (IPAS); the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, among others. He is currently the Special Advisor to the Ministry of Economic Trade and Industry (METI) and the Cabinet Office for the Government of Japan.

He went to medical school at UCLA and Harvard Kennedy School; serves on various boards of Global 2000 companies; frequently appears as a commentator on TV and is the author of seven books in addition to writing several weekly newspaper columns. His management book, The Team: Solving the Biggest Problem in Japan, was published by Nikkei BP and became a best-seller in 2012. In 2016, Saito received the Medal of Honor from the Government of Japan for his work in the field of education.

Posted by whsaito

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *