You need Humans for Uncertainty and Risk to Exist

Uncertainty and Risk (U&R} is a uniquely human concept: unless there is someone who cares, there is no U&R circumstance. For those of us who fondly remember our undergraduate philosophy courses, we may recall the following question:

“If a tree fell in the forest and no one knew about it, would its falling have made a noise?”

There are any number of satisfying responses to this question, the I liked is: “Who cares?” Like the tree falling, unless someone is impacted by an event, why would we consider such an event having U&R? If a star goes nova in a faraway galaxy, it is unlikely to the extreme that any of us would be particularly concerned (I know I too can think of circumstances where I would back off this assertion – because the event does impact us, e.g., a massive radiation burst from a close by star). This means that U&R has to be “personal” to someone.

Many questions we ask always have the implicit assumption that someone does care. That someone may care about what we decide to do, we quite reasonably undertake stakeholder analysis when doing strategy work.

One of the implications for when we do U&R assessment work is we are prudent to look to the future. It may not be personal to someone today (i.e., no discernible stakeholder), but it could be tomorrow.  A prudent follow-up question might be: “Under what circumstances could someone become a stakeholder to our decision in the future?”

This insight has had a major impact on my OD practice. It has lead me to consider unintended consequences in a decision choice at three levels: The outward/external consequences affecting other parties; our implementation/execution process choices, the consequences arising from how we implement; and, how we can get caught up in it as the previous two consequence sets begin to emerge.

Because we cannot read the future, any analysis will be by default oblivious to potentially significant consequences.Here again,recognition of this fact suggests how we might prepare for such eventualities (insurance, environmental monitoring for noise and dissonance, rapid response capability through the establishment of reserves, etc.) depending upon the nature of our decision.

Adverse consequences can take at least two forms: that which we don’t expect, happens; and, that which we do expect, doesn’t.

In the area of talent management, these last two observations have proven very helpful to me and my clients. We can pose these as two questions and ask what might occur/not occur that would derail our talent management strategy?

Examples include:

  1. We discover that when we go to market for a critical source of talent, we find it is not there.
  2. We discover that a competitor is aggressively seeking the same talent as we want.
  3. We learn that universities have cut back on a discipline/class that provides key knowledge and skill to the talent we seek.

I have discovered, that with a reasonable amount of time and the right people present, considerable quality in uncovering and listing these potential derailing consequences is achievable.

This process insight is of course applicable to most any issue facing people in any circumstance.


About 123stilllearning456

As a management consultant I am passionately interested in talent management and risk/uncertainty issues. In the area of talent management I propose that we seek strategies that look beyond the staffing/employee centric frames of reference. I have been frustrated at the "closing down on possibilities" by these more conventional staffing/employee centric approaches. I have been impressed where people have found systematic solutions to their talent management issues by going beyond the conventional approaches. In the area of risk and uncertainty, I am interested in making this topic relevant to more normal decision making situations. My conceptual foundation is to use the micro-economist's fixed/variable cost theme. I also think it is important to look at these issues for people through their emotional and psychological lens. As a premise I think risk and uncertainty only exist where there is a person who cares about possible events and its consequences. Hence, risk and uncertainty are social based concepts (no sentience, no risk and uncertainty). A major influence on my thinking in this area is Nassim Taleb of "Black Swan" fame. This BLOG provides me with an opportunity to express my thoughts on topics that interest me. As this is an online diary, content is more important to me than polish. I apologize if this distracts from readers' enjoyment and learning. Still I find this a useful way to live up to my namesake, learn more from others and hopefully provoke creative thoughts and ideas in others.
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