What do the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the 9/11 terrorist attacks of 2001, and the Covid Pandemic of 2020, all have in common? Before they happened, they were essentially unimaginable. They were each well beyond the norm. They were by their very nature something that challenged the lessons of experience and pushed the very limits of conventional thinking.
Because they were beyond that which had been imagined by the leaders of those days, early warning signs were ignored, overlooked, or misread. Emergency communication plans to inform, mobilize, and engage an anxious public were not in place. Essential networks to coordinate responders and maximize available resources had to be built. As a result, protocols and standards of practice needed for prompt and decisive responses were not even on the drawing board.
Clearly, the ultimate national response to each of these unprecedent events was highly successful. Nonetheless, in the short run, a failure to imagine left a nation temporarily shocked, somewhat unprepared, and seemingly flatfooted. When given time, and when the unimaginable became very real, the ultimate responses became models worthy of emulation.
Time and effort directed at worst-case developments moves them from the foggy remote to a visible possibility. Entertaining periodic doomsday scenarios and engaging in potential response planning, positions leaders and their organizations to better recognize and react to the unimaginable. When the potential of catastrophic demands is realistically considered, an organization’s potential to efficiently and effectively respond to the unprecedented is significantly enhanced. As a result, the time lapse between the onset of the inconceivable and the response needed to meet it is significantly reduced.
It must also be noted that the same holds true for organizational opportunities. They too can be unimaginable. And when they are, the organization can be ill prepared to maximize them.
What is unimaginable today, can easily become tomorrow’s reality!