How to Do the Best Risk Assessment
A risk assessment is a form of strategic planning and strategy methodology. The process attempts to think about the future by reflecting on the past. Most strategies are built upon specific beliefs about the future unfortunately, the future is unpredictable. The worst risk assessment is the one that denies the reality of unpredictability. Zero ideology and language help foster the denial of unpredictability.
The best risk assessment is the one that prepares and focuses on resilience. Adopting a framework that assumes absolute control, no mistakes, projecting value onto some score, colour or measurement creates a strategy that makes it more difficult to adapt when turbulence or change arrives. The key to managing risk is not fixity but adaptability.
A risk assessment is not a mathematical or engineering exercise but rather a human social process that should focus more on conversation than some shifting of colours and scores that have no meaning. Risk assessment should be a conversation and dialogue about the subjective understanding of uncertainties. It was Karl Weick who constantly stated: ‘I can’t know what I believe until I see what I do’. This means, as humans we have unlimited hindsight but very limited foresight. When we talk about what we have done, we rationalize backwards, when we talk about what we might do we imagine what might happen. Humans are not omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient. Setting zero goals may be good for god but doesn’t make sense for humans.
The risk assessment exercise is a thinking conversation and strategic task, if we think it is an engineering and mathematical task, we are in trouble. The notion of ‘controlling’ the unexpected and uncertainty actually diminishes any thought about adaptability and resilience. So whilst it is helpful to talk about the future, this helps us imagine and process possibilities but not certainties. Rather, having a focus on resilience and skills of adaptability we might be more able to manage the unexpected.
The best risk assessment should have a section at the end for thinking, learning, conversation outcomes, dialogue, adaptability and resilience thinking. What is the discourse of the risk assessment tools you use in your workplace? What kind of thinking do they drive? Are they making you adaptable and resilient or closed and fixed? Are we any safer by trying to predict the future? Or are we making our workplace more ‘fragile’ (Taleb) to surprise so that when that surprise comes, things fall apart rather than hold together?