The ‘Mess’ Risk Management Has Become

Norman Marks in his blog post called "Time to wake up to risk reality" said that "This is a post about news we should have known for a long time.
It’s time to recognize the truth about risk management." I responded as below.

How did we get in this mess?

42 years ago when I first started looking at what could go wrong, what it would lead to and how likely the effects were, it was quite clear that my role was exclusively to help those charged with making decisions. I did not seek to impose my arcane language and concepts on the decision makers. Indeed, a big part of my job was understanding their needs and the context and then after I had carried out my analysis, framing the information I gave them using terms and concepts that were meaningful to them. I did not insist they contort their language and ways of thinking to suit mine. I did not insist they either replace their business processes with mine or to run my processes in parallel.

I only worked for the decision makers, and if they could not understand and appreciate what I was telling them, that was my fault, not theirs.

Since then, and despite the Frankenstein monster ‘risk management’ having no solid foundation or universal meaning, the advocates of its many guises (normally with three letter acronyms) have created a perception in those responsible for the governance of organisations that ‘risk management’ was ‘good’ and should therefore be adopted.

This ‘Risk management’ belief system has been promoted as something that is both valid and indispensable: in effect something to be believed in as essential to good governance. But it is only a belief, there is little tangible evidence that ‘risk management’, whatever that term means, actually helps organisations make better decisions and thereby enhances their performance.

Organisations have been encouraged by ‘risk management’ advocates to give effect to this belief by superimposing a ‘risk management framework’ across the organisation comprising various edifices. Common examples included ‘risk committees’ of the Board, ‘Chief Risk Officer’ positions and various ‘risk management’ structures, policies, reporting requirements and so on. The purpose for establishing this paraphernalia, has been seldom transparent, explicit or understood. Consequently, to the extent that it actually existed, this ‘framework’ is seldom integrated with day to day decision-making – because, in fact, it can’t be. If it exists at all, this is only in a parallel universe to the real world where businesses are run and decisions are made.

This belief system has been bolstered by the many national stock exchanges that now included practice of ‘risk management’ as a necessary condition for a stock being listed on their exchange. The (entirely untested) belief is that practising ‘risk management’ (in whichever guise) is prima facie evidence of, and a prerequisite for, sound management. The myth they have perpetuated that investors could and should have greater confidence in such companies.

However, this has been proved repeatedly to be a fallacy, best illustrated by the extraordinary failure of the Enron Corporation and by many recent and spectacular examples of corporate failure such as that involving Boeing’s new 737MAX aircraft that took 346 lives in 2019.

It seems clear to me that if, after all the time and effort that has been invested in ‘risk management’ over the last 30 years, it still isn’t helping decision makers to consistently and competently make better decisions, we simply need to dump it. 

We should simply go back to where I was, 40 years ago – understanding how people make decisions and how we can help them understand their assumptions, the context and how they can become sufficiently certain of their desired outcomes.

The ‘risk management’ emperor has no clothes!