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The trouble with risk


New policy initiatives in public and private sectors mean that staff at all levels are increasingly expected to be involved in risk management – yet the training community currently offers few, if any, ways of engaging their wholehearted support for what is normally seen as a chore. Roger Miles of Repute Ltd offers an fresh approach.

"It's not a matter of life and death – it’s more important than that."

What do the following have in common: The World Health Organisation, the Food Standards Agency, the HSE, the BMA, the Higgs Report, the Bank of England (actually, I could add a hundred more...)? Answer: they are all telling us that risk management matters.

Yet what follows ? Traditionally, senior management produce a multitude of manuals, codes of practice, checklists and analyses. Sadly, much of this material will go over the heads of the very employees whose support is most needed if such shiny new initiatives are to have any real impact. In the age of the media scare, many are suffering from "warning fatigue" and either will not, or cannot, put risk into a proper perspective; still less, see what they need to do as employees to deal with it.

It must be time for us all to do something about this. Here’s the point: Risk management actually is too important to be boring. Far too many organizations have now suffered some form of catastrophe – whether collapse of the enterprise, or of public confidence – for risk not to be every employee's concern. (Remember Enron, anyone? Marconi? Rail services? Emergency services?)

Unfortunately though, a quick look at the history of risk management shows that it has tended to be "owned" by groups of risk specialists whose jargon (such as legal, statistical or financial) often serves more to obscure than enlighten. As with so many areas of organizational life, risk has been appropriated by professional cliques. Yet, whilst each clique has a sensible aim – to ensure legal certainty, health and safety, financial security and probity, or whatever – overall their effect discourages the interest of any non-professionals around.

A cynic might say that this tendency has defined all the professions for centuries. The process goes: Define an area of expertise, master it, create a jargon exclusive to it, then use the jargon to exclude others today's climate of flexibility and transparency. Less cynically, whilst I accept that there will always be some requirement for expert help, it no longer makes any sense to continue using old jargon to stop staff engaging with risk.

As so often with bad habits though, 'exclusion by jargon' has become so common that it is taken for granted, and therefore is hard to overturn. Given that there can be few things as intractable as a professional who "knows he's right", how on earth can the training community start to challenge this?

Training in this field, I have found that a very effective place to start is to return to the original principles of "why risk matters". For example, I like to show all staff how their own lives already entail managing all kinds of risks – not just at work, but in ordinary life. Whatever many of the risk experts defensively claim, it helps to suggest to everyone that we are all in fact already highly experienced managers of risk.

How can we say this? The truth, as they say, is already out there. Whether or not they notice it, all staff have been making risk choices for much of their lives: For example their choices of:

  • diet (fast food, or green salad?)
  • leisure pursuits (whiskey and 40 a day, or marathon running?)
  • travel (Volvo estate, or Honda Fireblade?)
  • holiday (dominant element: the nice hotel, or the bungee jumping?).
  • Each of these choices shows a degree of "risk appetite", one of the key components which determines how people get to grips with risk.

    For the facilitator, the next step is to lead staff to a point further along the same train of thought: To enable them to realize that an employer organization is, like a human animal, a risk-taking organism.

    With the frequent encouragement of gleeful media scares and MPs' often self-aggrandising use of risk issues as a political football, all too many organizations have ushered in a risk management culture which tells "non-expert" employees that their role is to shut up and to stay risk-averse. Yet consider, we all need risk to function as human beings. Just imagine if the early cavemen had said "I think we'll apply the precautionary principle and not try to venture out and hunt food from now on!"

    In the course of teaching the alternative view, I have found that most employees are both more intelligent and more intuitive than employer organizations allow for – and that these qualities enable all staff to grasp risk spontaneously and with enthusiasm. It's simply a matter of making the subject relevant and palatable…

    ...Which requires a risk expert willing to betray the rules of the 'experts club' by translating the jargon into plain language and "telling it like it is". There are few such heretics around, but I enjoy being one and it makes me very happy when I encounter others. I will say it again: Risk is too important to be left to the experts!

    When, with the right facilitation, the balance does shift, employees feel good about using their intuition to check and question unmanaged risks. Ironically, this makes the organization much better protected against risk than it would have been under its old risk-averse regime. This process also releases other benefits on several levels:

  • It helps with some of the more obvious functional requirements of risk management, such as getting all staff to speak up at the first sign of trouble, and thereby setting up an effective early-warning system. Once staff recognize that risk belongs to everybody, they are more positive when raising risk concerns and less inclined to dodge any tricky issue because of fears about "shooting the messenger".
  • By removing one of the major sources of disaffection (that "They don't care what we think", staff turnover is reduced. In turn this helps improve morale and genuine loyalty.
  • As a consequence of that, fraud is also reduced.
  • Customer service also improves as the message runs through the organization that everyone actually does care about resolving problems.
  • The gap between a (usually Board-inflicted) Mission Statement and the less-than-perfect reality of customer experience also diminishes.
  • All of these HR dividends point to a great opportunity for training presenters. Doesn't that make it incumbent on all of us HR and training people to look to present risk in more engaging ways?

    Roger Miles consults and teaches extensively on risk issues. With a background in linguistics, finance, and organizational communications, he is a keen and outspoken advocate of new thinking in risk management and training. At Repute Ltd he has developed a range of new tools to engage staff support for constructive change and better risk practices.


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