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What Can We Learn from Las Vegas?

The recent tragedy in Las Vegas provides a clear example of the need for all of us to challenge our assumptions. The commendable efforts by local first-responder organizations also demonstrates the value of using foresight techniques to build more resilience in preparing for the unexpected or worst-case scenarios.

Challenging Our Assumptions. After learning more details about the Las Vegas shooting, many people wondered why hotel personnel would not have noticed and reported boxes of high-powered weapons and ammunition being taken to a room on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Hotel. Their assumption, which turned out to be incorrect, was that the movement of so much lethal material was unusual. But it was not! Las Vegas has a robust gun culture, and major gun shows are held virtually every week. Visitors often bring large collections of weapons to the city. In the wake of a major terrorist incident, we must constantly challenge our assumptions to guard against premature closure and hindsight bias.

Building Resiliency. When things go bad, the postmortems almost always spark comments like “Why didn’t we notice in time?” or “Why were we not prepared?” Exercising good forethought, public safety agencies generate alternative scenarios and practice responding to them to enhance their response time and save lives. Las Vegas first responders, for example, were prepared to deal with the unprecedented and tragic shooting because they practiced how to react to an attack like the one that occurred in Mumbai, India in November 2008. The use of scenarios allowed them to better anticipate the unanticipated. Surrounding hospitals were able to deal effectively with what many described as “orderly chaos” in the hours following the attack because they had conducted their own resiliency-building scenarios exercises. As demonstrated in Las Vegas, resilient organizations are able to keep many variables in play and to anticipate the future unfolding in multiple ways.

Two other structured techniques that first responders can use to build more resiliency into their organizations by anticipating multiple futures are What If? Analysis and Quadrant Crunching™.

  • What If? Analysis posits that a disaster has occurred (for example, a mass killing at a sports event) and asks participants to brainstorm how the previously unthinkable event could have occurred. Once several feasible scenarios are developed, the next question is what resources and strategies would first responders need to best respond to the attack and assist the victims.
  • Quadrant Crunching™ is another reframing technique that first responders can use to avoid surprise. By challenging the conventional wisdom, the method examines multiple combinations of key variables to generate a large number of feasible alternatives. It was developed to help analysts and decision makers identify the many different ways terrorists and radical extremists could mount an attack on a given target.

Step-by-step instructions for using these techniques to challenge your assumptions and generate alternative scenarios can be found in Structured Analytic Techniques for Intelligence Analysis, 2nd ed.

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