When I pose the question above to people about the risk management experiences they have had in their organizations, they always say that it’s really more about risk elimination.  These are typically larger organizations and risk management, done well, is a prudent and necessary activity.  So why do they say “elimination?”

Definitions are adapted from Wikipedia.
Risk management is the identification, assessment, and prioritization of risks (the effect of uncertainty on objectives)  followed by coordinated and economical application of resources to minimize, monitor, and control the probability and/or impact of unfortunate events or to maximize the realization of opportunities. Risks can come from uncertainty in financial markets, project failures, production, legal liabilities, credit risk, accidents, natural causes and disasters as well as deliberate attack from an adversary or events of uncertain root-cause.

Sounds like pretty important stuff.

In essence, risk management is a process:

  • identify, characterize, and assess threats
  • assess the vulnerability of critical assets to specific threats
  • determine the risk (i.e. the expected consequences of specific types of attacks on specific assets)
  • identify ways to reduce those risks
  • prioritize risk reduction measures based on a strategy

In typical risk management, once risks have been identified and assessed, there are four basic techniques for managing the risk.

  • Avoid (eliminate, withdraw from or not become involved)
  • Reduce (optimize – mitigate)
  • Share (transfer – outsource or insure)
  • Retain (accept and budget)

I believe that what I and many others have experienced in “risk management” is actually an abbreviated two-step process:

  • Identify any risk/threat
  • Avoid it (eliminate, withdraw from or not become involved)

What is the effect of this approach on the larger organization?  How does it impact performance, moral, commitment, engagement, or whatever measure you choose to use?

Incite: Perhaps the “Two-Step” Risk Management process itself is another risk that needs to be managed.

Inspired by Seth Godin’s June 27, 2011 blog: Writing naked (nakeder than Orwell)‏

Why is most business writing so awful? The simple answer is fear. Organizational structures represent levels of power and privilege. Your rewards are not in your control. They reside within the minds and decisions of others.

The logic of worldly success rests on a fallacy—the strange error that our perfection depends on the thoughts and opinions and applause of other men.  A weird life it is to be living always in somebody else’s imagination, as if that were the only place in which one could become real.  ~ Thomas Merton

Language is the primary encoder of our messages, between our thoughts and the minds of others. Ineffective language weakens and distorts ideas.

People are afraid to say what they mean, because they might be criticized for it. Afraid to be misunderstood, to be accused of saying what they didn’t mean, because they might be [wrongly judged]  for it. ~ Seth Godin

George Orwell had a passion for clear, simple writing.  Below is his guidance from the Remedy of Six Rules.  The rules have been edited by Seth Godin using Orwell’s own rules.

1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.  You don’t need cliches.

2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.  Avoid long words.

3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.  Write in the now.

5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.  When in doubt, say it clearly.

6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.  Better to be interesting than to follow these rules.

This example illustrates that clear, simple writing is not easy. Orwell acknowledged his own shortcomings and once wrote, “Look back through this essay and for certain you will find that I have again and again committed the very faults I am protesting against.”

I am sure I have done the same in this blog.

If the goal is to communicate, then say what you mean. Say it simply and clearly. Say it without fear of misunderstanding or negative feedback, and say it without being boring.

But when it comes to complex ideas, don’t forget Einstein ’s advice. “Makes things as simple as possible, but not one bit simpler.”

You may have to use Rule 6.

Incite:  What would you call the fear that exists in the presence of power within an organization?   Does it really affect how we communicate?

I have wanted to write this post for some time now, but for some reason have been putting it off.  On May 27, 2011, however, for the first time in US history,  a bill was signed into law by a mechanical autopen at the direction of President Obama who was in Europe. This historic event, and dare I say a great money saver, provided the inspiration I needed.

About fifteen years ago, while in graduate school, I was tasked with developing a model to explain organization dynamics. At the time I was working in a manufacturing environment so the human-machine interface was obvious. The manufacturing equipment was part mechanical, part electrical, and the factory was supported by IBM mainframes, DEC Minicomputers, and other smaller computers. Supervisors were equipped with shortwave radios and beepers for more effective communication. Personal computers had started to enter the workplace in 1981 accompanied by dot matrix printers and later, ink pen plotters. For me, the most obvious concept was the CYBORG Model.

I specifically remember one of the first outbursts against the invasion of the Cyborgs that populated the model. In the late 1980’s we had hired Dr. Wayne Dyer to come to the world’s largest factory of its kind and speak to the salaried workforce in the auditorium. Within minutes after his opening remarks, someone’s beeper went off.  Dr. Dyer abruptly stopped his planned talk and went into a ten minute rant about “electronic leashes” He chastised the group for being slaves to technology and not taking personal responsibility for deciding when to turn it off. I wonder how he feels today.

Technology began to evolve at an ever increasing pace. Palm Pilots were the Personal Digit Assistants (PDA) of choice, but were later eclipsed by the BlackBerry, with other models spanning the gap. Car phones became mobile phones and entered the workplace. Productivity steadily increased as did distraction.

“Crackberries” soon began showing up in meetings. They tended to be the higher level managers that the company had chosen to supply with the technology. The behavior of checking the device increased in frequency.

As technology continued its whirlwind advance, computers became more useful and cell phones smarter. Our ability to connect with others increased exponentially as did our ability to disconnect on a personal level.

It’s not uncommon today to see more than one person in a meeting checking emails, text messages, or even just entertaining themselves as Cyborgs. A bigger complaint, one I have experienced myself, is the one-on-one meeting with the “manager” who during the course of the meeting will glance at his computer screen for incoming email, check her cell phone for text messages or take an incoming call, and yes, even answer the “land-line” phone.

What has happened? In science fiction it’s called assimilation. Have we become assimilated by the technology? All technology devices I am aware of have On/Off switches.  Could Dr. Wayne Dyer’s rant in the 1980’s been a foreshadowing, a warning about the future?

As much as I observe and sometimes criticize Cyborg behavior, I am not immune from it. I would not be able to function without my laptop; and just recently I was seduced by the Sirens of the smart phone. My rational was that I needed mobile access to my email when I traveled. Little did I realize that the lure of its capability would capture so much of my time and attention – the Android may well be the cousin of the Cyborg.

I haven’t even addressed the Internet or the World Wide Web. And now that Web 2.0 has arrived, perhaps the entire concept of the human-machine interface is changing. Check out this popular 4:31 minute video by Professor Wesch and pay special attention to the ending messages. It’s called Web 2.0… Machines are Us/ing Us.

Incite: To what degree have you been assimilated? When personally connecting with other people at work, can you control or even shut down your machine-side?  What can you do to show others that they are more important than your technology?

Our perceptions, our knowledge, our beliefs, i.e. our mind sets, are the result of patterns we have created in our brains over time.  On one hand they are a good thing because they are efficient and they require little thought.  Imagine having to pull out a map or use your GPS every time you wanted to drive home from a familiar location.  On the other hand, according to Dr. Edward Miller, Dean of the medical school and CEO of the hospital at Johns Hopkins University, 90% of people who have coronary bypass surgery do not change their lifestyles.  Why is this?  The patterns we create in our brains are wired, eventually hard wired, and difficult to change – they can become mental traps

What’s the key to avoiding restrictive mental traps? Pattern-switching – it’s the ability to switch over and see things in a different way and create new connections.  It is the basis for insight, learning, and dare I say wisdom – eventually. Pattern switching is much more difficult for the “close minded” person.  The “open minded” individual who is also open to influence has greater success.

I used to have an open mind, but my brains kept falling out.  ~Steven Wright

So let’s get back to the original question – what is the most powerful  mind changer?  Humor – it’s the most straightforward and obvious expression of the ability to switch patterns. It’s one we seldom resist. With humor, we suddenly see or think of something in an unexpected new way, and it makes us laugh, or at least chuckle.

I think the power of the mental process that underlies humor trumps logic and reason. Logic and reason help us explain things and figure them out –  humor changes them.

Note: For a more deliberative approach to pattern-switching, see The Medici? Effect.

Incites: Many managers have an open door policy. To be effective, they also need an open mind policy. When you have a different point of view, do you ask other people about the thinking, the experiences, the story behind theirs?  How can you connect the two different perspectives to create a new connection. For example: A physicist speaking with a minister – If heat rises, wouldn’t Heaven be hotter than Hell?

This is not a role model in the typical sense of the word.  That is, it’s not about a person who serves as an example of the values, attitudes, and behaviors associated with an organization.  This is a model that can be used to explain all the various roles within an organization.

Over time, we have realized that a bit of confusion has been created between the concepts of leader and manager. I myself, contributed to this confusion in 2001 when I facilitated a group of thirteen Directors through a process to design a training program for new managers. The final name of the program – Leadership Journey for New Managers!

The following is a simplified model that can be used to understand and differentiate between the responsibilities of any role.

There are three basic components. Each one is performed to a different degree based on the requirements of the job. For example, a self-employed person who has a small business needs to balance all three out of necessity.  The owner, who is too focused on doing the work (technician), may find that managing (operational) and working on the business (strategic) suffer.

In larger organizations, it is easier to differentiate.  The primary responsibility of the individual who does the work is “technician.”  The main responsibility of the person who plans, monitors, and coordinates the work is “manager.” And the responsibility of setting direction with strategic thinking and planning, is the priority of the “leader,” also commonly referred to as Executive .

When you determine the degree of each responsibility for each position, it is easier to determine the training and development needs for both current and future positions.  Remember, every position uses a combination of all three roles to varying degrees.

Role Responsibility Primary Development
Technician Tactical Technical training
Manager Operational Project & people management
Leader Strategic Strategic thinking, planning, and execution

Is the Peter Principle alive and well? This is a tangential topic but one worth discussing here.  Actually I would argue that each person does not rise to their level of incompetency, they are promoted by others to that level – a small but significant difference.  The reason is that most decisions for advancement are backward looking.  The philosophy that a person must do well or exceed in the current position in order to move to higher position is well intentioned but somewhat misguided.

In sports, a great athlete doesn’t necessarily make a great coach. A great coach doesn’t necessarily make a great general manager, and so on.  There are numerous examples of high performing individuals being promoted to the manager level only to falter because what made them great (technician) is no longer as important a skill.  It may even be a derailer.

Missed opportunity? On the flip side, an employee may have a broad conceptual thinking style and excel at strategic thinking.   If they enter the organization in a “technician” role that requires narrow focused attention for tactical execution, chances for success are slim.  In this scenario, both the employee and company lose.

Incite: Are you clear on the responsibilities associated with the various roles within your organization? When considering someone for a position of greater responsibility, let’s change that to a position that requires a different set of skills and even thinking style, do you focus more on past performance or future fit?   The key to successful hiring, placement, and promotion are your selection, development, and advancement systems.

The “elephant in the room” is a common expression used in organizations for an obvious issue that is being ignored and going unaddressed. The reference to elephant suggests that the issue would normally be impossible to overlook.  Some people even add the color pink to emphasize its obviousness. Those who pretend that the elephant is not there tend to deal with smaller or less relevant issues.  So the question is why. Note: Some people mistakenly use the expression “white elephant;” it has a totally different meaning.

There are number of potential reasons. One is that the issue is so large, overwhelming, or complicated, that no one wants to try to deal with it.  Or, the problem may be associated with bad news, and few people want to be the bearer. Bad news is associated with negative emotions, and we know that negative emotions are associated with the messenger, even if not consciously.

That’s why sayings like “don’t kill the messenger,” “don’t stir the pot,” and “don’t be a trouble maker” have been around for so long.  This poster contains one of my favorites – it’s an old Moroccan saying.

So how do you deal with an elephant in the room? I would love to say I have the perfect answer. Actually I would like to say I have a good answer. Unfortunately, organizations and the environments in which they exist are so complex that it is difficult for me to provide any answer in which I would have great confidence.

The basic approach however is 1) name/acknowledge; 2) address/confront, and 3) solve/overcome.

Even after calling attention to an issue, there is no guarantee that it will be addressed, let alone solved, especially if it’s a complex issue with no easy answer.  There’s a reason it became an elephant in the first place. At least by talking about it, you have taken the first step –  better you than the elephant.

Incite: What elephants exist in your organization? Is it okay, even encouraged to talk about them?  If not, what can you do to make it okay?  What method do you use to address them?

Because I have been thinking and writing recently about the difference between managers and leaders, I thought this data-driven list from Google, in the March 13, 2011 New York Times, would be interesting.

Incite: Have you or others in your company thought enough about how to manage effectively to come up with your own rules?