Is There Knowledge Left?

by Brett Mott

During a 2020 presentation, Dr. David Rubens, the ISRM Executive Director, asked whether the seminal works on strategic risk management had already been written. Panel members observed it’s been a while since any groundbreaking works have been published.

But an enduring phenomenon during the pandemic is the explosion of content professing to view life through a new, post-pandemic lens. We’re told to tear up old assumptions and reassess where we are, what we do, and where we want to go.

While that’s sound advice, the rest of the content often falls short of its goal. It consists of the same recommendations offered in books and articles dating back to the 1970s.

While what follows is hardly revolutionary, I’d like to share some observations from books I read during the pandemic. I find them to be helpful on starting with the right mindset and to avoid repeating what’s already been said elsewhere.

What’s the Problem?

Sir Michael Howard, the British military historian, observes “We must ask not only whether the existing solutions are still valid for the problems that evoked them, but whether the problems themselves remain unchanged.”

David Kelley, founder of the Institute of Design at Stanford University, writing with his brother, Tom, in their book, “Creative Confidence,” explains “Problem statements often assume that you already know what to look for, that you know the correct solution and that the only challenge lies in figuring out how to achieve it. Before you start searching for solutions, however, step back to make sure you have unearthed the correct question.”

They describe the need to create a quarter-inch hole in a piece of wood. Focusing solely on quarter-inch drills overlooks the possibility there could be other ways to create the hole, such as using a laser.

Laura Huang, in her book “Edge,” also addresses this concept: “Before we can effectively create valuable solutions to strategic problems, we need to know what problem we should be addressing in the first place. The notion of ‘jumping to conclusions’ is better stated as ‘jumping to solutions’, without actually defining the problem.”

Retired General Stanley McChrystal writes in “Team of Teams” that there are no permanent solutions; problems might have different solutions on different days. “The constantly changing, entirely unforgiving environment in which we all now operate denies the satisfaction of any permanent fix.”

In their book, “The Stupidity Paradox,” Mats Alvesson & Andre Spicer put it succinctly: “I have the solution! Now what is the problem?”

History and Experience

Sir Michael cautions against drawing precise lessons from history. When looking at the past, “our knowledge is inevitably incomplete and filtered through doubtfully reliable channels.”

Yet we often use history as a template for action. In his book, “Everyday Survival,” Laurence Gonzales quotes Henry Plotkin, a psychobiologist at University College, London, who cites our tendency to “generalize into the future what worked in the past.”

McChrystal observes “The ritual of strategic planning, which assumes ‘the future will be more or less like the present,’ is more hindrance than help.”

This leads to the role experience plays. In the book, “Deep Survival,” Gonzales notes “The word ‘experienced’ often refers to someone who’s gotten away with doing the wrong thing more frequently than you have.”

He explains that experience drives our adaptation, and we need to remain cognizant of “Adaptation to what?”The environment changes, meaning we must understand that our experience may no longer apply to the new situation in which we find ourselves.

Expert or Professional Idiot?

We look to experts for advice. But Michele Wucker writes in “The Gray Rhino,” “We’re more likely to overweight information from ‘experts’, a failing that can have disastrous consequences if we simply accept recommendations without question.”

Alvesson & Spicer state “When people are promoted to think they are experts they become more closed-minded and dogmatic. What the Germans call Fachidioten – roughly, professional idiots. They know a lot about a specific issue, but are clueless beyond their very narrow domain. They also become rather rigid and negative about what does not fit into their worldview.”

Charles Perrow, in his classic book, “Normal Accidents,” shares a similar observation regarding how experts will frame problems to fit within their view or expertise. He also offers that “Generalists, rather than specialists, are perhaps more likely to see unexpected connections and cope with them.”

Experts often share what are considered to be “best practices.” Alvesson & Spicer write “What fits one successful company (or industry, or even a nation) does not suit another. Best practice is often a matter of local specificity and is hard to cultivate.”

Stephen Bungay, in his book “The Art of Action,” observes “Oil companies do not work like 20- person software houses and pharmaceutical companies do not work like biotechs. Exhorting them to learn from their smaller cousins is of limited practical help.”

The Kelleys note “Many organizations… check out what their competitors are doing and pick what they consider ‘best practices.’ In other words, without questioning current ways of doing things or seeking new insights, they copy and paste.”

Alvesson & Spicer share “’Best practice’ is often the airbrushed version of a business practice that is peddled by pop management authors, the business press, and consultants, but is not durable enough to be moved between organizations.”

There is also a tendency to ignore oppositional thinking. Rishad Tobaccowala, in his book “Restoring the Soul of Business,” notes “We live and work in a world where opposing points of view are filtered by search engines, social media, and recommendation engines aligned with our interests. As a result, we find it increasingly easy to see only validating evidence and facts…”

Tobaccowala is a proponent of asking “What if the opposite were true?” He states, “unless someone can build a strong case for the opposite of what they say or believe to be true, they lack credibility; they’ve failed to analyze a given situation thoroughly.”

What Next?

The title of this essay comes from a song. In the study of strategic risk management, I feel there is knowledge left. And while many classics on the subject were written decades ago, I think there are seminal works waiting to be composed.

But getting there requires more than recycling laundry lists of principles and best practices. Our challenge is to offer different perspectives on existing knowledge, or to come up with new ways to connect the dots.