The Leap

I’ve been working on an educational resource for entrepreneurs and small businesses and it’s got me thinking about what it’s like to take risks in such circumstances.

Starting a business clearly involves risk taking – often the risk of giving up the steady income of ‘regular’ employment for the uncertainty of striking out on your own. There may be financial concerns (such as covering loan repayments) or consequences of a more social nature, for example the families and friends who think you’re mad to be giving up a steady job.

Back in the ‘90’s Gene Calvert wrote of such things in his book ‘High Wire Management’. He highlighted the plight of an acquaintance who desperately wanted to start his own business but was held back by the apparent level of risk, some of which included social pressure.

Calvert’s friend eventually succeeds, but only after attempting a sort of halfway house solution to his goal; he takes a part-time role which allows him to pursue his aim of self- employment the rest of the time. His partial solution is, of course, only partially successful.

It’s a good example of the how risk is so keenly felt by entrepreneurs: your finances and social standing are directly bound to the decisions you make.

By contrast making decisions in the corporate environment can be very different. Every day decisions with multi-million pound risk profiles are taken with much governance, but very little personal consequence being attached. This can happen due to the collective responsibility (actual or perceived) that comes with the corporate environment. It also happens because – to be blunt – individuals can hide in big groups.

When you start your own business there’s nowhere to hide. You stare the risks straight in the eye. This is where confidence comes in to play. But for ‘confidence’ don’t read ‘just do it’ (or JFDI, as they used to say down our way. Work out the extra letter for yourself). In good risk taking, confidence flows from a clear understanding of the risk and sound plans for handling it. After all, risk taking is not gambling, it’s choosing to do important things in a reasoned way.

All of which makes me wonder at the the number of enterprises that have failed to get started simply because the person who came up with the idea thought it was all just too risky.


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.