10 May 2021
I am originally from Brittany. what triggered my career: April 1967, I am 18 years old, I am on the north coast of Brittany and I am seized with a smell which has nothing of marine iodine and bathes this Pink Granite coast which m is so dear to me. A smell of fuel oil. It was the Torrey Canyon oil spill, which ran aground two weeks earlier across the Channel. What strikes me are the statements of the authorities. Very quickly, they wanted to “reassure”: “Oil will never cross the Channel”. Everyone laughed on the coast: "Our brave rulers ignore the phenomenon of currents." Second government insurance: "Everything is ready" when nothing is. And the Minister of the Interior added, when it is necessary to take note of the disaster: "In no country in the world did anyone imagine that an oil tanker could sink near the coasts". Words of comfort thrown at your face cannot erase the evils, hide the failings.
I also have a vision of my grandfather, injured in World War I. I always said to myself 'it is not possible, how did we manage to arrive at a collapse, a real suicide of Europe ... Was there no one to think and act differently?' Later, I'll read Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August, where she points out that Joffre refuses to hear Lanzerac's warnings: the Germans go through Belgium (“impossible, it is neutral”), they use their reserves (“impossible, the reserves are useless ”), they use aviation (“ impossible, it's for tourism! ”), and Lanrezac is sent to Limoges (after, incidentally, having helped save France by a saving maneuver )… And it will be the same deafness in June 40.
A life project will be engraved in my mind: to work tirelessly so that vital issues, masked by the usual, can be objects of both intelligence and responsibility.
Impossible to think that the enemy could pass through Belgium (neutral), impossible to think that he could pass through the Ardennes (impassable). It is enough for the red team to leave the framework to amaze a whole staff. And whoever alerts, or ask questions, will be called "Cassandra" and quickly taken out of the game - a funny game where the prospect of rout is ultimately better tolerated than an unseemly question because it is not agreed upon.
But the Celtic soul does not flee from the impossible, quite the contrary. And this is the lifeline I was talking about: going to look for what is hidden, to find avenues for reflection and action. So as not to leave the field open to adversity.
How many times have I heard the surrender speech: "I will not play Cassandra," signifying gaping ignorance. Because Cassandra is not the one who says nonsense, but the one who announces the crushing defeat if we refuse to examine the issues as they are. How many times have I had the right to a “pessimistic” trial! But I will not stop correcting: optimism is not to pretend that risks and dire trajectories do not exist; optimism is the determination to step up to meet the challenges we face, affirming that we can - and must - meet these challenges.
Polytechnique, it was the great opportunity of my career. I had sent the thesis that I had just completed on the management of large risks to Claude Henry, Professor of public economics at the school, and Director of the econometrics laboratory. It had brought together, alongside top-flight econometers, a number of researchers tackling the examination of major societal problems - education, agriculture, land, etc. And he wanted to launch a reflection on “Major risks in societies considered advanced” at the request of the Planning Commission.
I told him straight away that I was not a mathematician, but he replied: “Mathematicians, I have no shortage of them!”. He was looking for another profile, and in a very short time, I joined Polytechnique. An institution, a laboratory, an outstanding director: It was an exceptional openness, an opportunity that had to be seized. A map that allowed me to explore this very sensitive area of "major risks" as I was soon going to qualify them in my State Doctorate thesis.
These were intense years traveling the world. The subject was indeed very difficult to broach in France: I was thus amazed to hear the head of the Fuels Department at the Ministry of Industry tell me that he really did not see what I was referring to when I spoke. 'asked about the Feyzin disaster. So, focus on England, Canada, the United States, listening to exceptional leaders, remarkable analysts, serious events as well as inventive advances. Always with my concern to clarify the issues, to identify the pitfalls, to identify the courses of action, to think about the preparations to be invented. To go beyond simple observations, and offer navigation routes on these rough seas.
One day, one of my interlocutors said to me: “You are on a difficult subject, but you are going to meet fascinating people”. My career has indeed been marked by these encounters with giants. New intelligence, creative operational action. Determined and open personalities.
Fortunately, in France I was able to count on a few remarkable officials who were not afraid to tackle difficult questions either. At the department in charge of industrial security at the Ministry of the Environment, Civil Security. And soon in the world of large groups, in all sectors of activity.
I can take as an example a course with EDF. They had had a major crisis from a small event in 1984. A relatively innocuous transformer fire in Reims. The blind advance has led to a national and even European crisis ... The hasty elimination of all similar processors across the country, at a staggering cost. But - decisive act - the Director of Distribution, François Ailleret, gave me a mission of reflection which led to a new deal in terms of risk management and crisis response. Thanks to a manager who was as responsible as he was determined, we went from dodging to lucid, constructive and directly operational care.
In January 1998, an “ice storm” brought down Quebec's electricity grid. I called Jean-Pierre Bourdier in charge of EDF risk management to suggest that he go there. He is quickly organizing a feedback mission, which will take place in April as soon as circumstances permit. We are learning a lot about what was not "an outage" but "the destruction of the network". A year and a half later, at Christmas 1999, when the two great storms hit France, this feedback was crucial: immediately, everything that had been learned in Montreal was used by Jean-Pierre Bourdier. He was instantly in tune with the problem, he didn't need, as so often in unprepared organizations, to deny the problem before he took it up.
This is the key: to be in a condition for success so as not to immediately abandon the field to the crisis.
One day I meet a global risk director from a large international group, whose name I will not mention. He tells me that he wants me to intervene in front of all his risk managers that he brings together in Paris. I tell him that I am going to talk about the issues of the risks on which we do not yet have a mapping. Strong reaction: “Especially not! you will worry them! ”. I tell him it's exactly the same thing a large foreign group told me sometime before the Deep Water Horizon disaster ... His reaction: "So you are bringing bad luck!" Game over. Uplifting: a leader held by fear. Fear of scaring its general management. Afraid of scaring its risk managers. Fear of imagining the issues and having to work on them. The whole system is then in danger.
This is fundamental. We must encourage the feedback of information to know and control the risks. And it begins with the exemplary nature of the leaders who must lead their teams with confidence and responsibility on these questions, admittedly difficult, but of existential importance.
I find in these territories of risks and crises one of the major lessons that a young visionary professor, Bernard Sordet, met at ESSEC, had transmitted to us: it is the strategy which must guide the action, and not the administrative. Sun Tzu puts it well: "Attack the strategy of the enemy". A stack of rules will never be enough. The main thing is in the vision, the drive, the cohesion, the initiative.
The state world is less agile, but in a chaotic environment the demands are the same. I have met great personalities in both worlds who know how to get their teams on board. I am thinking, for example, of the prefect Christian Frémont with whom I had led seminars for the prefects on the general theme: "New crises, new attitudes". He said it well: to be able to act without having to have your feet on a rock, because you will have them on the sand - and to know how to train others. A thousand miles from what I once heard: "Here, it's like the Mikados: the first to move loses!"
Our latest crises, in an increasingly shaken up world, show more and more scathing what a poor preparation for these universes of high surprise costs. When the right culture is not there, no plan holds, no agreed procedure is no longer suitable. Confidence is destroyed. And this is what needs to be done in depth.
Also with appropriate procedures. This is notably the "Rapid Reflection Force" approach that with Pierre Béroux at EDF it was possible to set up at EDF. A strong group of great diversity, trained to react on a blank sheet of paper, to clarify four essential questions as quickly as possible: What is it? What are the pitfalls? Which actors? What combinations of creative impulses to think and implement? This is the most promising operational route currently for navigating the inconceivable: stepping back, building navigation routes, at high speed, when the usual landmarks are lost.
Indeed, a tautology is called for: it is infinitely more comfortable to stay snuggled up in your comfort zone. But it quickly becomes a lethal zone if the environment demands more than silo blindness.
Personal example. Diving in the Maldives. While we know its safety rules well, and even the ultimate mention: "If you are lost, at least follow the air bubbles, you will come back up", here is an instructor telling us: "Be careful here, sometimes the bubbles can descend - due to perverse currents ”. And he adds, “They can also go up, and require you to do the decompression stops upside down. In this case, the whole group sticks together, and we hold together. Recently, some people wanted to play every man for himself, and that caused four deaths ”. Change of mental map, taking a step back, action, solidarity… and of course rapid exit from the agreed niches.
But it takes practice to break free from the tyranny of the conventional. During the same diving trip: although we know that decompression on ascent requires that the blood circulate well, and therefore that arms and legs are relaxed, I found myself ... in a school of jellyfish. Instantly, I curl up into a ball of "protection". A monitor gestures to me to spread my arms and legs, I comply and I measure the trap.
Our risks and our crises require this mental and behavioral agility. And only training - however fast it is not about being time consuming - can pave the way for winning attitudes. Always with a question: What is the blind spot? What questions did I not ask myself? The real issues are precisely where we are not going to question, where we end up loaded with answers, when it is the questions that are decisive.
To finish with the diving school, still in the Maldives, we were diving in a school of sharks. On the way up we give our impressions, and the instructor intervenes: "The problem weren't the sharks. You had a stone fish right next to it, and there it was deadly. " Stimulating lesson in vigilance and questioning ...
Yes, that’s the stake today. We were used to working on possible very specific, mapped, and circumscribed accidents. Here we are grappling with mega-risks that come out of the blueprint on all dimensions, to systemic vortices that no longer have "ground zero", all in chaotic contexts that no longer meet our paradigms of reference. . Crises have left the “flight domain” of our visions, logics, toolboxes.
Mobilizing the knowledge and resources of the past more quickly is not necessarily useless, but this is no longer the key to the required management. And the mantra of "coordination", or the mere fixation on "communication" will not be enough. A new cultural, strategic and operational deal is essential - with all that this implies new preparations.
Preparing for the crises of the last century, by accumulating the files of dedicated power-points, is not enough. You have to prepare for the world as it is. With the determination not to be trapped in the lessons of the past.
A Silicon Valley president once told his executives: "Your area of responsibility is now unknown." Here is the stake.
The problem is to find the effective system. My dream would be for the most creative, the most dynamic, the most responsible to be promoted. And not those who know how to "reassure their superior", or worse those who, through their toxicity within their "teams", ensure their personal promotion by relying on organizational powerlessness to denounce their harmful behavior. Too common organizational pathology, reinforced by these mutations which worry and paralyze in depth. Otherwise, as Sun Tzu still says, we will be defeated in every battle.
If you could time travel, what advice would you give to the child that you were?
The message would be “we are not going to tell each other a story, it will be difficult, there are hard experiences, but we have no choice. You will refuse to surrender, you will find the energy and determination to open the way. And being able to turn all of those hardships into something worth living, going through and transforming. " This remains my lifeline in my current missions: to help concretely understand, and above all - because the findings are not enough - to deal with the challenges of the world as they present themselves. A job as difficult as it is exciting, which must range from strategic intelligence to operational inventiveness. And there is no longer a minute to lose in consolidating our skills, putting ourselves in the capacity for personal and collective success.