Retiring as a French Air Force four star general in September 2011, Gilles Desclaux set up his own
consultancy company GDC2. He is also an outside director to Thales Raytheon Systems and defence adviser
to Ernst & Young France. In his keynote address at the FERMA Forum on 2 October, he will tell risk managers
about the importance of ‘anticipation’.
He responded to some questions from FERMA.
FERMA: You have written about anticipation. Risk managers are always concerned about emerging risks,
threats which are difficult to imagine. What principles would you advise them to adopt in creating a system of
Gilles Desclaux: The world today is not necessarily more dangerous, but more uncertain and unstable. The number of disaster scenarios seems to increase in line with technological advances and the subsequent changes in human societies. The 20th century has given us so many things from aeronautics to the growing importance of information technology, space conquest and nuclear revolution. On this basis, we may believe that there will be more drama in the 21st century than in any other.
That complexity associated with very constrained financial resources makes anticipation an essential tool to assist large companies in their preparation for the future. They can no longer afford to be wrong!
The primary function of foresight is to help decision makers to expand their viewing angle. We must learn to think the unthinkable, to think out of the box. Today, the ‘toolbox’ of anticipation is rich in interesting methods, such as the identification of weak signals, scenario development or the ‘wild cards’ that are critical scenarios. These processes are conditioned by a comprehensive planning process that focuses research and directs resources to critical, high risk points.
But, finally, prerequisite to these approaches are perhaps just a truly open mind and a good dose of intellectual curiosity.
FERMA: Should enterprises – and even the military – have room for a few iconoclasts or even eccentrics who can draw attention to risks that senior managers may not have the imagination or perhaps the willingness to consider?
Gilles Desclaux: I note that business leaders are very interested in the analysis of unanticipated strategic breakthroughs. For example, the causes of the ‘failures’ of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which were studied thoroughly, are obviously eloquent for decision makers. The causes are primarily social: the leaders of the CIA tended to recruit always the same profiles, with a cult of hierarchy and clientelism. In other words, staff members sought to imagine what the boss was thinking to fuel his natural inclinations.
In business as in the military, people able to anticipate have a non-conformist vision and are often atypical, disturbing for their professional environment and difficult to manage. Trying to get rid of them would be a serious mistake! I would urge businesses, as any organisation, to listen carefully to the ones spreading doom and gloom, the iconoclastic, and to diversify recruitment as much as possible.
FERMA: How in your experience is it possible to get senior management who are under pressure to produce short term results to pay attention to potentially devastating risks which may not materialise?
Gilles Desclaux: Strategic failures do not usually result from a lack of information. Deficiency is due to the filter which prevented seeing. Leaders must be aware that anticipation should impact their convictions and get them to think otherwise.
But the capacity to master the time factor is truly the heart of the new challenges for management. It is the guarantee of freedom of action, the ability to anticipate. If the time factor has always been one of the main concerns of policy makers, the multiplication of the means of information and communication makes it particularly difficult to master. The immediacy of information, coupled with the proliferation of sources and our access to them, can cause a saturation effect and even a blindness phenomenon.
FERMA: What are your thoughts on the most threatening aspects of cyber risks for enterprises?
Gilles Desclaux: We can indeed imagine that the next major crises will erupt either in cyberspace or in outer space, both of which are also often linked as everything relies increasingly on satellite transmissions.
With all domains now being structured by digital technology, the vulnerability of information systems
to malicious acts is now permanently a central concern. Enterprises should improve both cyber-protection to make systems more able to defend themselves, and cyber-defence in an attempt to identify attackers and to be able to react accordingly.
In the same spirit as in the anticipation domain, the recruitment of atypical hackers who are able to dissect a system to identify its gaps and its weaknesses should help companies to progress.
FERMA: What have you found the simplest and most difficult aspects of moving from the military to advising enterprises?
Gilles Desclaux: In fact, the easiest has been to adapt to enterprise functioning and to its rules. It was amazing how well prepared I was to change to this new world thanks to a very rich and diversified career. There are in fact many similarities: strong hierarchy, the key role of human relations and same management processes and tools.
The most difficult aspect was definitely the big change in my working conditions! Switching from an environment where dozens of personnel are helping to facilitate the daily battle rhythm of the commander-in-chief to the simplest organisation was very demanding in the beginning.