Purpose Coping with and adjusting to disruptive challenges has always been a characteristic of human development. Formalisation of this has led to the emergence of a number approaches addressing disruptive challenges. Often formalised practice has a narrow focus. Increasingly complex challenges require a refocus of formalised approaches. Drawing from these approaches, the purpose of this paper is to posit that a greater focus on preparedness through pre-disaster planning is needed for a more holistic approach to disaster management. Design/methodology/approach – The paper reviews the evolution of disaster management thinking and practice and proposes that changes are needed to the dominant disaster management model. These changes are drawn from a number of alternative perspectives. Based on the uncertainties surrounding complex or “wicked” problems, for example, climate change and variability, this paper develops a more holistic approach. Findings Responding to “wicked problems” requires a greater focus on preparedness. In terms of disaster risk reduction a greater emphasis on pre-disaster planning is needed driven by social learning processes. Originality/value Faced with an increasingly uncertain and complex future, current approaches to conceptualising disaster management are inadequate. This paper develops an approach that is likely to be more effective.