What if we fail? This is the question that has haunted all businesses and leaders on the eve of every new venture, every 'supposed' milestone and ground-breaking announcement they have to make. Sure, the idea sounded good at first, perfect even. It was a 'eureka' moment, a "why didn't we think of it before?" scenario. But, when the doubt kicks in, it keeps them up at night, wondering, fearing what could happen, and how it will happen. All of a sudden, everything is uncertain, the future isn't as clear as you first thought it would be, and you find yourself asking if this was a mistake or a risk worth taking. Ignorance apparently is not bliss.
Truth be told, no one has it all figured out – at least, not entirely. Even the geniuses ruling Silicon Valley know that the world is full of uncertainty and that there is no recipe for success.
“Success is never certain. It never comes without risk. Even if you’re the smartest or the hardest working, there’s no guarantee of anything. The people who go on to do great things in their lives know this. They also embrace it,” says author Gary John Bishop. “They didn’t succeed because they were certain they were going to succeed; they succeeded because they didn’t let uncertainty stop them.”
Successful businesses today know this all too well. And, if we’re going to keep moving with the change: We have to embrace uncertainty as innovation’s necessary evil twin. With digital technologies metamorphosing at lightning speed, and business models uprooting accordingly, uncertainty will need to become the new norm we learn to leverage. It is a natural-born shapeshifter that can bring prosperity or havoc, and it’s our job to unlock its benefits – against all odds, all risks.
Risk and Uncertainty: the two ends of a spectrum
Risks are cases of known probability, according to famous economist Frank Knight. Say you have to pick a card out of a deck, while you cannot predict exactly what card will turn up, you know your chances – regardless of how slim they are.
Renowned as one of the world’s leading economists during the twentieth century, Knight made significant contributions to modern day understanding between economic risk and uncertainty through his book Risk Uncertainty and Profit.
Uncertainty, on the other hand, is the complete lack of certainty. You didn’t think it was possible, you didn’t even think it existed. But, while the two may be the ends of a single spectrum, uncertainty is not akin to being sucked into a black hole or vanishing into oblivion. It, in fact, even breeds new possibilities, challenges limitations, and brings hope that everything can change and anything can happen.
We have no choice but to embrace and acknowledge it. As a revered Persian poem by Ebn Yamin goes: “One who doesn’t know and doesn’t know that he doesn’t know… he will be eternally lost in his hopeless oblivion.”
In his book, Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt into Fuel for Brilliance, Jonathan Fields speaks to the opportunity that always goes hand in hand with upheaval: “If everything is known and certain, that means it’s all been done before. And creation isn’t about repetition.”
There has to be room for obscurity and utter failure, chaos or quandary, that will thrust you into the dark room of innovation until new and better ideas can take form in the light. The more ‘chameleon-like’ in its approach, the more adaptable and open to reinvention, the more likely an organisation will be to ride out the waves of disruption and come out on top.
The problem, however, is not everyone has enough courage to face uncertainty, instead fearing potential reputation damage following a risky move. But, as overwhelming it can be, not knowing what will happen is an unacceptable excuse not to act. It actually suggests otherwise. If you choose to stay in bed all day to reduce the chance of misfortune, you also miss all the glorious opportunities and chances to enrich your reputation that a day outdoors and with other people can bring. Minimising risk means eliminating opportunity. In these constantly evolving times, it’s important to identify and manage risks and opportunities, while also protecting your reputation. The more we welcome risk through the front door and reframe it as resilience, the better poised we’ll be to shape our collective future.
Start small, think big, optimise risk!
Risk professionals are not strangers to uncertainty; it’s one of their biggest hurdles. As the access to information and the power to pass it on (whether fake or not) is now literally within arm’s reach of anyone who has a handheld smart device, disruptions can come from anywhere. Thus, risks become harder to identify and manage.
What if looking at the big picture is not the key? What if zooming in the lens a little further or taking a microscopic view of the risk factors is the solution for businesses to become nimble and agile in the face of uncertainty?
More often than not, risk is described as a single event. It is not. It is actually a combination of several aspects we can call ‘symptoms’ – elements of an activity, product or service that has the potential to cause an impact. Take for example, the risk of getting hit when crossing a road.
There are a lot of symptoms and factors: how far is it from your side of the road to the other, are you going to stroll or run across, are you on crutches or in a wheelchair, and what is the weather like? What are the kinds of vehicles that will pass by, what is the state of the drivers of these vehicles, are they rushing to their destinations, or are they under the influence?
Individually, these symptoms can be harmless, but together they can be damaging or life changing. They can affect each other, triggering a ripple effect such as in dominoes where every piece matters, like a risk chain. If you change one aspect, more changes may follow for better or worse.
In an article titled Risk Management and the Butterfly Effect, Thomas Frenehard, SAP Senior Director, Business Development for Finance & Risk solutions, explains that: “Key risk indicators are a great way to keep an eye on these underlying risks and their drivers. And if these indicators are automatically updated, it means that they can be regularly compared against thresholds and that you will be notified only if a negative trend is building.”
In fact, engineering firms have started adopting this model, using hybrid tools and techniques comprising various risk management frameworks to ensure a more certain outcome. Risks and critical success factors are initially identified on a larger scale, and then each one is further isolated and analysed with the help of other tools and techniques to determine and optimise decision making.
If risk professionals act like uncertainty’s neurosurgeons, wielding the scalpel and diagnosing the health of those symptoms, we can dissect situations and then pull back the magnifying glass to gain the big picture.
Can it be machine learned?
The tedious process of configuring these risk chains is painfully manual and never ending. There will always be new factors, risks, and surprises, uncertainty says so. But the good news is, in the hands of today’s powerful technology, this has the potential to be machine learned.
Once we understand these symptoms and risk chains, we can build a library of configurations that can be developed, updated, and improved through time as we encounter the different faces of uncertainty. Utilising hybrid tools and techniques custom-framed to address the organisational reality for each sector, the algorithm can split all the courses of probability of taking a certain decision in just one click.
However, machine learning should not be seen as a silver bullet, according to Lourenco Miranda, head of model risk management for Americas at Societe Generale in New York.
“Humans would never be replaced for the more complex decisions in model risk but, by training a machine to process repetitive parts of validation, we can focus our attention on the higher and more complex models responsible for the biggest exposures. It is a great increase in efficacy of the model risk management process,” he says.
If we can learn to navigate in the dark, sidle up to uncertainty, and leverage the right tools and big data, we can train ourselves and our organisations to thrive in these volatile and random times. We will never know if we’re going to succeed or fail until we do, that is uncertainty; but, the more we welcome risk through the front door and reframe it as resilience, the better poised we’ll be to shape our collective future. There is a lot to know in not knowing.