There are many times in our lives when we take risks. For some taking risks is an integral part of their daily lives. Racing car drivers, BASE jumpers are extreme examples; others might say the very act of driving a car or crossing a road presents a risk they face every day. Our perception of risk is separated between those we accept mindlessly and those we need time to consider and inevitably this varies substantially from person to person.

It’s the degree of risk we face, our preparedness for it and our courage that determines how often and how great the risks are that we are prepared to face in our lives.  I was only recently running a number of workshops in Delhi, India and to see the way pedestrians regularly negotiate six lanes of traffic each way on a busy Delhi freeway, without lights, is risk few of us unaccustomed to it would consider.

One of the more interesting shifts in our modern society has been how we are continuously trying to limit the risks we face in our daily lives.  We seem to receive advice around car safety, workplace safety and in recent times the risk of terrorism almost daily. When you start listing them all, it’s a wonder we all survive given the enormity of the risks that we are surrounded by and appear to be ever-increasing.<img src="http://yourdomain.com/image.jpg" alt="Risk. Taking the Plunge" />

Many of the choices we make in sport involve risk. Risk of injury, risk of losing a game, risk of missing a basket, and for professionals, these decisions become instinctive. The extent to which an athlete is able to assess risk and make the right decisions can make a huge difference in their professional lives and the longevity of their careers.

Risk is the master of change. Our acceptance of risk in many ways foreshadows our commitment to change. How we respond to risk is therefore a direct function of how we all respond to change.  Acceptance is about how good we are at assessing all the factors in involved, and on a balance of probabilities does the benefit warrant us taking the risk.  If I speed to make a meeting, is the meeting more important than the potential speeding fine I will get; if I miss shooting practice, might that mean I miss a key shot, or if I don’t put in the time for this report will it have consequences for my company and/or my position?

It’s an interesting question; how do we respond to change? Can you think of situations in your daily life where you can reflect on how you responded? What about more specifically in the way you have responded to various emerging technologies? I was intrigued to reflect on my own response to mobile email. For someone who’s been using technology for an extremely long time, I ignored the value proposition it offered on the premise that the volume of email I received would become a distraction to my daily routines.

I was 100% wrong, but what interested me was why I had that response? My assumptions were entirely wrong, and interestingly my computing experience belied my understanding of a new concept. Lesson learnt.

Take a minute and think about how schools first responded to the use of technology for learning. The initial response to the internet by schools as an example, was to build a wall around it, to white list acceptable sites, to create repositories; because of the risk of predators, but more the risk of the unknown. More recently there have been similar responses to cloud computing.  Of course there is largely the fear of the unknown, often the consequence of not being well informed, but there was an immediate assumption of risk which far outweighed any perception of benefit or value.

Sad, but is it an inevitable reaction? In many ways it’s simply that we are responding to a new order of things, or rather a new order of change, whereby we are all uncomfortably unfamiliar with the rate of change we are now witnessing. Accordingly, we are often poorly informed of the shifts we are seeing in our lives and therefore we seek to mitigate any risk by either ignoring, blocking or as in the case of Uber, trying to legislate against it.

Additionally, we see that the more people have been successful in negotiating risk, and accepting the changes that accompany it, either in their daily or working lives, the more confident they are to assess risk in future decisions they make. This is probably most evident in the evolution of the entrepreneurial culture, where risk is a prerequisite of reward, as opposed to a public sector culture which too often repudiates any notion of risk and public policy suffers as a consequence.

Of course, the extreme on either end of the continuum offers challenges.  Risk-taking for its own sake, can certainly drive egos, and simply be a response to fads and distractions, with a reactionary outcome that is a step backwards rather than achieving any sense of positive change.

And there’s the impact and value of experience on our choices. As we get older, and we have to make judgments in situations we have experienced before, theoretically we make better choices. Theoretically.

But for all the choices we make every day the ones we are often the least prepared for are the ones we encounter in our working lives, and so our responses are often cautious, sceptical and even cynical. Most of us find the familiarity of our daily practice somewhat comforting and of course predictable, and the intrusion of a new idea, a new process or an organisation change becomes a threat to that comfort because it risks disturbing what we know.

So are the biggest risks we face always associated with change, or in fact is it possible at times that we face bigger risks by doing nothing?

I would contend that in our schools today it is in fact the case, and not even incremental changes in practice that seek to improve existing practices within the existing model of school mitigates that risk in any way. Doing nothing is the covert risk we’re failing to assess.  In fact I would suggest that incrementalism suffocates innovation in a way that destroys people’s energy for significant change.

Doing nothing to respond to the changing world that our students are facing is not only a massive risk, but in fact a serious gamble on their future. Incrementalism, chipping away at the existing models we have is both deceptive and deceitful because it implies a promise of an adequate response which deludes all players into avoiding confronting the changes that are now so urgently required. It’s the choice of the risk-averse, but it’s in fact creating a bigger risk for future generations who will simply not be well provided for by the legacy practices of past decades.

However, we can avoid this if we decide it is time for us to openly confront the risks, both perceived and real, associated with such fundamental change. We need to address the assumptions and underlying concerns that others might have. We need to act swiftly to ensure the risk-averse are better informed about the benefits, and most importantly, the possibilities that such change can offer their students.

Failing to do that is the biggest risk of all.

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(Image Credit: Lucas Gilman)

3 thoughts on “Risk.”

  1. Mark L

    I could not agree more, Bruce. I think it was Ed Schein who talked about how people move only when the risk of doing nothing is perceived to be greater than the risk of failing in what is changed. It is human nature.

  2. Debbie S

    An excellent article that is a serious call to arms to make a change for our children’s sake. We have to do more than the lip service we currently provide!!

  3. John P

    Just thingking outloud…. Risk is a moving target and not a constant; it is a subjective concept and not an absolute. The more prepared for challenge, the less the risk.

    Does perception of risk then equate to a lack of preparedness? Also, if there is a perception of risk, who is responsible for bearing the responsibility of preparedness?

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