In the immediate aftermath of a crisis, one of the most damning and penetrating questions asked of political leaders and senior state officials by the media, opposition parties and other actors is: ‘why didn't they see it coming?’ The question is often rhetorical, the implication being that warning signs were clear and should have been acted upon. In this article we identify the assumptions underpinning the ‘why didn't they see it coming?’ narrative as it has been expounded in relation to the global financial crisis in the UK and US. Since 2008 commentators have routinely argued that warning signals of an impending financial crisis were ignored by political elites, treasury officials and financial regulators. Such arguments are made in hindsight and we refer to them as backward mapping perspectives. In this article we advance a counter-narrative, from a forward mapping perspective, where the focus is on placing such ‘failures’ in the context of the time, without foreknowledge of the crisis that would happen. Accordingly, we argue that warning signals that, with the benefit of hindsight, now seem obvious, were actually ambiguous and fragmented because they were received and interpreted within a very different ideational environment.