A recent HBR blog post from Ernst and Young helpfully summarizes research that shows the increased profitability over time of companies with “mature” risk management functions – engaged with strategic risk and integrated with strategic decision-making. It’s a good read with some solid data behind it.
Here’s another slant. Plainly, in times of general stasis, when technologies, markets, other factors, are changing little, risks are comparatively low. The risk function in major companies, and risk itself as a para-profession, developed in such times. The rapid uptick in disruptive change powered chiefly by the digital revolution (aka Moore’s Law) and (directly and indirectly) related factors such as globalization and the furious growth rates of some less-developed economies have changed everything. Risk has moved from the edges of the business (traditional trade-offs between insurance and self-insurance, data backups, leadership transition planning – the many aspects of prudent housekeeping) to the heart of the enterprise – and its competitive advantage.
The sorry tale that came to a head on Wall Street in 2008 has underlined this in rather crass terms. But the tale is being told in many companies, most recently the effective collapse of Kodak and now RIM – companies built largely around a single product and technology (Kodak) or merely product (RIM) that have suddenly gone the way of the dodo and the travel agent. In an oped for the Sydney Morning Post during my visit to Australia’s finance powerhouse AMP last year I described Groupthink as public enemy number 1. Groupthink, from a specifically risk perspective, is of course about the fundamental mis-rating of risk; a consensus lock-step in ignorance that by understating risk balloons it into 2008 proportions. (I shall paste the piece below.)
Point here: The Risk Management team is the C Suite. The Chief Risk officer is the CEO. Together with certain core functions, like hiring top executives and directing corporate strategy, the key risk function is not one that can be delegated. While this may not always have been true, as we climb the curve of disruptive and often destructive innovation in the second decade of C21 it is now not only true but urgent, vital to the flourishing – and survival – of every business. While finance and banking do not deliver all the best bad risk stories (we have noted RIM and Kodak; we could add BP and Susan Komen), the gearing is much higher and the disasters unravel more dramatically and with more strategic impact. So J.P. Morgan’s Jamie Dimon apologized for letting $2bn slip through inadvertence; a week or two later it now looks closer to $9bn. And Barclays, with other banks, have just been revealed fraudulently manipulating the LIBOR rate. On it goes.
The CEO is Chief Risk Officer. And as I have argued elsewhere (summary in the oped below) one essential risk management tool is the assembling and respecting of widely diverse opinions in every strategic conversation. It’s true of the board; of the executive team; of every context in which – essentially – ideas are put into the furnace to create value and competitive advantage. The further we ascend the Moore’s Law slope, the higher the risks, and the more diverse and respected such voices need to be.
Groupthink hasn’t worked, it’s time to embrace the maverick
As the Arab spring continues to unravel into an Arab summer, the most important lesson is that hardly anyone knew it was coming. Much like the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Wall Street could it be that as much as conventional wisdom may be conventional it is not always reliably wise?
I recently hosted a conference in Washington on the future of nanotechnology. All kinds of experts were round the table talking tech and policy and business. Then one of them made a stunning statement. She was there on behalf of a big, mainstream environmentalist group. “I have never,” she stated, “been on such a diverse panel in Washington.”
There was a brief but palpable intake of air around the room. I thanked her for the compliment before adding that I was now more concerned for Washington than I was before.
Whom do we invite round the table when the questions are big and the stakes high? It tends to be those in the centre; the mainstream thinker whose wisdom is regarded as conventional.
When will we ever learn? We are still paying for the lesson we learned from Wall Street in 2008.
Conventional wisdom can be dead wrong, even in the hands of the smartest people because they tend to agree with each other. People with way-out views are kept at arm’s-length.
Whatever the issue, if your views deviate too far from the mean, however articulate you may be, you are unlikely to get invited, funded or promoted.
We have learned a lot this past generation about the value of diversity in age, gender, and ethnicity but we have learned little about the enormous and growing value of diversity of opinion.
Of course, we do disagree about a lot of things. With friends, and with co-workers. But we live in communities of ideas that set boundaries around acceptable diversity of thinking, and make sure we keep out those who challenge our shared assumptions.
We don’t want to rehash old issues we regard as closed. We don’t want to give room to opinions we find deeply objectionable – or threatening. Most of us find it challenging to take forward our thinking when there is someone in the room always, always asking why?
So our natural tendency is to put unconscious faith in Groupthink, the tendency for everyone’s thinking to move in the same direction to the exclusion of any serious questioning.
People in management know all about this as a problem for work groups and other teams. But it is more insidious and far more dangerous on the grand scale.
What brought Wall Street down, and with it threatened the entire global order? The G-word. And on smaller scales: what led Monsanto into huge losses in the late 1990s and ensured that Europe rejected genetically-modified food? What led Detroit to near-oblivion as they insisted on producing 1950s-style autos into the 21st century? What about the power company TEPCO and the nuclear disaster that the entirely predictable tsunami sparked in Japan?
Knowledge is building very fast, disciplines are converging, globalisation is changing the ground-rules of everything. Change powered by Moore’s Law, the digitisation process and the revolution in communication is driving shifts in the technical, economic and social order that most of us strain to grasp. Yet the faster change takes place and the greater its disruptive, innovative power, the harder it will be to make good choices.
So who should be party to the conversation? This is where the outliers come in; people who are articulate and serious, but outside the mainstream assumptions that generally drive conversations. Experts tend to resist the participation of thosewith unorthodox opinions. It needs to become the norm for them to sit round the table in every discussion. All articulate voices round the table; all the time.
This approach is hardly new. The century before last, US poet, essayist and journalist Walt Whitman asked the question his own way. “Have you learned the lessons only of those who admired you, and were tender with you, and stood aside for you? Have you not learned great lessons from those who braced themselves against you, and disputed passage with you?” In the 21st century, great value lies at the extremities of opinion; and we need to harvest it as we move through change faster than we have ever known before.
First appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, June 9, 2011.