What’s the collective noun for reality TV shows that spotlight obscure behaviour? A slurry perhaps? Or a sluice? A sluice of crap TV. That works.

UK’s Channel 5 recently dished up Obsessive Compulsive Cleaners, an offering that, despite its title, managed to leave a small but lasting off-white smear on the bottom right hand corner of my mental IMAX.

The set up is well known and simple: find people with extreme behaviour, script in an offhand reference to some science and roll the cameras. In this case the behaviour centred on domestic cleaning, where some of the ‘cast’ were obsessive about cleaning and others were the polar opposite. Put ‘em together and watch the human story play out.

The little nugget of science was a reference to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Some of those on camera had been diagnosed OCD, others had not. It didn’t really matter since the thing everyone will remember about this little slice of life will be the housewife who gives her kids a bath in Dettol once a week. For those not familiar with the brand, Dettol is a disinfectant primarily designed for ‘environmental surfaces such as household floors and the walls of slaughterhouses’. So, not children.

The other nod to something sciencey was the use of an electronic gizmo to test for the presence of bacteria. Dettolmom’s bath registered zero. Anything below 500 is safe to eat off. They didn’t test her kids., but they were probably sub-500 too, meaning she could use them as little portable dinner tables.

OCD is complex, where some sufferers can become slaves to their obsessions. Were we witnessing genuine obsessive compulsive behaviour on this show? Maybe. Or perhaps these were people with too much time on their hands to wrestle with a perception of risk that is monstrously out of whack?

This might be an example of modern life clashing with the limitations of human perception. After all, let’s not forget that we’re essentially unchanged from our ancient ancestors who evolved in small, close-knit communities that were unencumbered with the worrying complexities of the global village, science and technology. The modern world is full of things that are partially understood and apparently threatening: bacteria, the internet, banks, nanotech, global markets, tax law, corporations, radiation and Boris Johnson to name a few. Is it any wonder that our brains, running on software older than the ice age, sometimes struggle to maintain perspective?

Mind you, it would be great if we could solve our problems simply by giving them a sponge down with Dettol. Imagine that.

Nigel’s Face

What’s wrong with Nigel Farage’s face?

If I was writing a tabloid column I might claim this to be the question that ‘everyone’s asking’. But I’m not, so I won’t.

Nevertheless, it seems that every time I see a picture of Mr Farage’s fizog it seems strangely – how shall I put this? – warped. It’s as if he’s decided to win votes by gurning. Or perhaps Boris Johnson has convinced him that politics is really just a face-pulling contest.

Here’s an example, freely available on the Earth-stradling Internet:


Here’s some more…

Huffington Post


Let’s be kind and describe these as ‘image malfunctions’. How can one person have so many? I am compelled to put forward the following possibilities.

1. This is Nigel’s face

It is possible that nature has given Nigel a very silly face. No matter the time of day or the photographer’s angle of attack, Nigel always looks like he’s on his way to a casting session for The Bash Street Kids. That, or dealing with the after effects of a particularly nasty enchilada.

Bash Street Kids

2. Nigel likes pulling silly faces

Maybe this is Nigel’s way of making people like him, in the same way that some kids play the class clown to get a laugh and avoid ritualised playground thumpings.

3. Picture Editors choose the most unflattering pictures available to reinforce the notion that UKIP is a joke party and Nigel is a political clown.

Perhaps Nigel – like any of us – sometimes looks a bit daft in pictures and those pictures are filtered to make him look stupid.

Looking daft in pictures is something that we all know about. I’m usually caught with my eyes shut or looking like an axe murderer. Even the most glamorous Hollywood A-listers can sometimes look like a reject from a 6 year old’s Plant versus Zombies drawing. What chance have the rest of us got?

Are the nation’s Picture Editors having a laugh at Nigel? Do they think he’s a bit of a wally and filter the pictures to support that view? If so, I think they should stop. Nigel’s party is trading in narrow-minded, right-wing piffle. Unfortunately, it’s the sort of piffle that can flare into something much more serious.

Time will tell

Only time will tell if Scotland’s decision to remain part of the UK is a missed opportunity or a narrow escape. I suspect the former, not that it matters.

Two remarkable things came from the referendum. The first was an extraordinary democratic exercise informed by a public dialogue the likes of which this country hasn’t seen for a very,very long time. Regardless of the outcome I am immensely proud to have been part of that.

The second is the aftermath – a UK-wide debate on the validity of centralised government.

Colours to the mast time: I sincerely hope this is a catalyst for meaningful change, not just for Scotland, but the whole UK which is struggling under an outdated, centralised power-base that is unsuited to the needs of a diverse, well-educated population of the 21st Century.

This is a debate that doesn’t need the (often) shrill ramblings of nationalist rhetoric. Rather, a simple acknowledgement that it’s time to move on and embrace change.

Scotland’s referendum attracted a turnout of more than 85%. Imagine that level of participation across the UK. What a sight that would be.

Not talking’ ’bout…

It’s a feature of modern corporate and public life that we don’t mention the ‘f’ word. Not that ‘f’ word of course – nowadays that one’s dropped into casual conversation without a second thought. No, I mean the other ‘f’ word – failure.

When it’s close to home people don’t like talking about failure. In the same way that ‘problem’ has been excised from the business lexicon (to be replaced with ‘challenge’ or ‘hurdle’), so ‘failure’ is masked , usually by someone in an influential position demanding that ‘we need to look to the future, not dwell on the past’.

We’re told that looking back isn’t healthy (except when we want to remind ourselves about the stuff that went well), that it doesn’t help us get to the shinning future now on offer. We’re moving forward. Together. And never mind about that unmentionable thing now disappearing in the rearview mirror.

But wait! Don’t we learn from our mistakes? Don’t we get better when we confront our shortcomings and make tough changes?

Well, of course we do. And, of course, there are powerful social and cultural reasons why we’re encouraged to keep our eyes on the road ahead (tight project timelines or national face-saving, perhaps).

But sometimes it’s a shield that’s mis-used, wheeled out to divert attention from wrong doing or incompetence. I have precisely zero evidence to back up that statement, but I’ll happily stand by it because I believe it’s only human nature to try and dodge the bullet. The point is this: we’re talking about a survival mechanism that has informed the rules and structures that shape our great institutions, allowing huge amounts of waste and risk to be hidden away.

Waste is one thing – sunk cost, too bad. But risk? That’s something else – that’s future cost or, to think about it another way, past failure that’s not finished hurting yet.

Something, I would suggest, that is worth talking about.


Just watching Netherlands versus Mexico in the last 16 stage of the World Cup. The strips make it look like Easy Jet versus Aer Lingus but, that aside, it’s exciting stuff.

I’m not much of a football bloke. Up here it’s usually called ‘fitba’ and, as a Scotsman, unless you parlez-fitba you’re excluded from precisely 67.8% of all social intercourse.

Nevermind. It’s the World Cup and that’s different. Everything goes a bit hatstand when the World Cup’s on. There’s a story going around that the Unionist ‘No to independence’ campaign has England winning the tournament on their risk register as a likely cause of a huge swing towards voting ‘Yes’ come September.

True? Don’t know. But if so, there were probably some very mixed feelings after the England-Costa Rica game. Ah well, that’s fitba.


People love to make predictions. Really, it’s part of the human condition. There they go, swanning about with their opinions and their haircuts, ready to go all Nostradamus on everything from the weather, to election outcomes, football scores and the price of cheese. Or any other price for that matter. There are whole industries built on it. However, ask a typical line manager to make predictions about likely risks to his operational area and it’s remarkable how often that particular well dries up. Why? Well, here’s a thought: 

It may be because such predictions can lead to expenditure and, while line management are happy signing off budget for things they can relate to in the present, putting one’s name to spending against things that may never happen is ‘arse in the wind’ time (as we say down our way). 

Apart from anything else, how do we build this into to an individual’s annual bonus review? A rating for hazards successfully avoided (even if we can’t measure them)? Or perhaps a bonus top up for ‘quality of prediction’? Should we attempt to recognise the degree to which local management risk-taking aligns to the organisation’s risk-stance? 

We’re way down the rabbit hole now. What I do know is this: while it may seem like an easy thing to do, asking line managers to identify risks often means asking them to go way out their comfort zone and that’s not always easy at all. 

Beware the Risk Bureaucrats

One of the notable things about Risk Management literature is the variety of ways authors have chosen to define ‘risk’. As it happens, here’s a likely version at the front of the class, waving its hand franticly in the air and fairly wetting itself to be chosen first:

the effect of uncertainty on objectives

Hmm. Definitions don’t usually aim to be opaque, but that effort from the ISO Guide 73 is scoring high on the ‘not shedding any light’ index.

Never mind, here’s another, this time from the Business Dictionary:

A probability or threat of damage, injury, liability, loss, or any other negative occurrence that is caused by external or internal vulnerabilities, and that may be avoided through preemptive action

Well, there’s certainly a bit more to that one. And wouldn’t you know it, here’s a third:  

The product of the chance that a specified undesired event will occur and the severity of the consequences of the event (OGP)


These examples all have something in common: they’re all missing a bit that says ‘that we can think of’.

That’s the thing about risks: they are ideas, speculation, conjecture, mental constructs. A risk is something we think could transpire at some future point and it follows that, if risks are the products of our minds, then to understand our capacity to think of risks becomes really important to the success of Risk Management.

So it’s strange to note that, when it comes to putting Risk Management into practice, the psychological dimension is frequently overlooked. All too often a risk bureaucracy is implemented, awash with procedures, matrices, criteria and taxonomies while failing to prioritise an appreciation of how people think and why they hold a particular set of views.

Understanding the risk-taking psychology at the key decision-making points in the organisation would seem to be a good thing to do, but that would require a shift in tone for Risk Management in many firms and a challenge for the risk bureaucrats.

The Risk Of More

Re-reading my post of 6 Jan this year (‘Too Much of a Good Thing’) it dawns on me that what I’m talking about is a type of risk – the risk of more.

A lot of risk thinking has to do with having too little or not having things the way you want them (for example, when things go wrong). But in an affluent society having too much can be risky, by clouding the simple option and stretching decision-making capabilities to the max.

Right. Nobody move. I hereby lay claim to this idea and phrase ‘The Risk of More’. Since it’s just occurred to me I have, as yet, done precisely zero research to find out if anyone got there before me. If not, expect a book in 2015.

Liz and Julie go to the Bank

‘One has overspent’ screamed the headline from i, the Independent’s ‘quality tabloid’, thereby putting a flame to the ‘quality’ bit of that Unique Selling Point.

This was the revelation that the royal household hasn’t been too good at balancing its budget, primarily in relation to the cost of maintaining so many Royal garrets up and down the country.

The story itself is piddly – a waste of £2m, while significant to Joe Q Taxpayer, is smaller than the smallest beer at the institutional/corporate/national level. Government departments waste this sort of money through over generous allocation of toilet paper every hour (probably). And anyway, someone won 50 times that much on the Euromillions last year, so live with it.

No, the underlying topic of how this lands in the public sphere is much more interesting. The i’s headline is telling: this mundane tale of some lackey failing to do his sums is turned into a SHOCK! expose that plays (by design?) to a well worn meme: our lords and masters are idiots and/or crooks.

This massaging of events is the harsh reality of what risk people call reputation risk. The term is often watered down to a vague narrative, such as ‘negative media exposure’, which doesn’t really do justice to the toxicity of the issue.

The truth is, I reckon HRH doesn’t really have anything to worry about – her public standing is almost unassailable. Probably second only to Julie Walters who can afford to appear in The Harry Hill Movie without so much as a smudge on her credibility. If you want to find a entity that’s genuinely vulnerable to reputation risk look no further than the Royal Bank of Scotland.

RBS was established in 1727 and spent nearly three centuries building a cachet that one commentator characterised as ‘Corporate Deity’ before watching it plummet to ‘Lower Than Whale Shit’ in a few short years.

The latest press grumblings have to do with executive bonuses – as expected. Such stories at least have the merit of actually being about the organisation. Other reporting can’t claim such distinction: the recent TSB/Lloyds/Bank of Scotland IT outage invited comparison with RBS (it had nothing to do with the firm). Even more bizarrely, a recent piece discussing historical perspectives of the First World war saw fit to gauge the quality of military command with the standard of management in RBS.

When your reputation amounts to being a yardstick for cock-up you know you’ve got a problem. How do you bounce back from that? Time and hard works, perhaps – but don’t be too sure. Just ask British Rail which once, many years ago, claimed ‘leaves on the line’ had been sufficient to disrupt train services. That particular piece of communications genius has become a sort of national shorthand for incompetence and even pops up in the current Audi advert.

For their part, I think Risk people need to do more to explain reputation risk – more helpfully thought of as a consequence of operational risk – to better prepare the executive classes for the true impact of their decisions. It’s no exaggeration to say that, in some cases, hundreds of years of work could be at stake.

Too Much of a Good Thing

Choice – what’s not to like?

Choice – and plenty of it – is what progress looks like. Or so we’re told. The engine for delivering choice is, of course, the free market where, the theory tells us, the exercising of choice will allow the cream to rise to the top, leaving the optimum result. Happiness and contentment follow. Job done. 

Nice idea. However, I wonder if having lots of this choice thingy is all it’s cracked up to be. What happens when the sheer number of choices becomes bewildering, when there is simply too much to choose from? Ever been to a toy shop with kids itching to spend their allowance? Choosing can become frustrating and discontentment can follow from exposure to all the stuff they can’t have. 

The same can be said for television broadcasting (so many channels – which one to watch??), household technologies, clothing, insert the commodity of your choice (there it is again, see?). 

And what happens when the choice is about something that’s long term, complex and important, such as financial products? The theory says that, by the almighty power of the market, poorly designed, badly priced products will fail, leaving us with top notch, well designed and fairly priced pensions, savings and investment vehicles.

Take a look around. Any new mis-selling scandals? Be patient, there’s bound to be one along in a minute. 

Of course, we might argue that the market’s ‘invisible hand’ is still at work. Perhaps, but if so, are we to accept that, in the interim, countless thousands can expect to be disadvantaged as the market balances itself out? Ouch.

Musician Peter Gabriel makes the observation that the worst thing you can give an artist is lots of options: narrowing choices – for example, by limiting materials or time – forces creative thinking, driving new ways of working and unforeseen solutions. There’s also the often overlooked satisfaction that comes from working it out for yourself.

It’s a compelling perspective and one that’s lost on many people used to living and working in the land of plenty: too much of a good thing can be a real problem. In such an environment making choices requires discipline, the mental rigour to weigh a rational analysis of options against gut feel and make a clear-headed assessment of wants and needs. 

Making choices becomes increasingly difficult as the number of options increases and yet, making good choices underpins contentment and happiness – and it’s good for business.  In affluent societies learning to make choices should be seen as survival training.