Risk, resilience and the rear-view mirror

Over the last month, in client work sessions and in conferences in San Francisco and Chicago, I’ve had conversations with over 40 corporate EHS/sustainability leaders. Behind closed doors, despite lots of hard work and good progress, there is more unease than complacency. I heard three related aspects of that unease.

Risk: What’s keeping us up at night?

When asked “what’s keeping you up at night right now?” the leaders gave a surprisingly consistent answer: Basic performance. No matter what the numbers say, are we going to hurt or kill someone? Is everything really working as well as we’d like to believe? If it isn’t, will we find out before something really bad happens? Will we find out in time to fix it?

When asked “what keeps you up around the longer term?” they gave much more varied answers. There was a common thread around emerging or rising expectations and regulations. The details varied but included carbon, safety and sustainability-related reporting (including SASB).

Resilience: Are we prepared to cope with those risks?

Resilience is getting a lot of play. Whether resilience is an important concept or “just the new buzzword” (as one Environmental Director suggested skeptically) is open for discussion.

Resilience can be an important concept. There is important work being done around it, including how resilience might provide a different way to interpret and apply sustainability.

At the same time, it is a popular buzzword. Some use resilience as jargon to dress up “just recover from bad stuff faster than the competition.” That’s important, but it’s way too narrow.

Resilience raises key issues. Resilience is the ability not only to survive, but to thrive in the face of change which may be disruptive, discontinuous and dissonant. That change can come from anywhere, including in your organization, geography, business, or the climate (political, physical, regulatory or economic). At its best, resilience is not just getting better at reacting, responding and recovering when bad things happen – a fatality, a devastating release, loss of a key part of your supply chain. Rather, resilience is anticipating, adjusting and adapting to changes without having that fatality, devastating release, or loss of a key part of your supply chain in the first place.

In one conference, I illustrated that by pointing out a friend in the audience. Let’s call him John. I said I hoped I never had to go to John’s wife, whom I know, and tell her that John had been hurt on the job – and was never coming home. If I did have to do that, though, I didn’t think it would help her much if I then added brightly: “But the good news is, we’re resilient. We recovered so quickly that we replaced John already. John’s dead, but we lost only a few hours of production. Isn’t that great?” That’s not the kind of resilient I want to be.

Resilience therefore poses a challenge to your management systems: Do your management systems help “risk-proof” your company, or are those systems themselves something you have to worry about risk-proofing? Do your management systems help prepare you for the things you can’t prepare for?  Do they actually give you capabilities that are resilient, or just more rigid plans?

Put another way, do your management systems help you sleep at night – or are they something else that keeps you up at night?

Rear view mirror: Where are we looking for insight into those risks?

If resilience is about anticipating and adapting, not just responding better, how do we anticipate the changes and understand the risks?

There’s a big focus on data and information systems. Clearly, we learn more each day about Big Data’s capacity to gather more information about everything (including us, like it or not). Focusing on data has its own risk, though: existing data, by definition, is historical and backward looking. Focusing too heavily on data is like driving down an urban freeway at rush hour with duct tape over your windshield, looking only in your rear view mirror.

The interesting question is, can information systems help you understand the past, manage the present, and anticipate the future? There’s a lot of energy going in that direction, especially in intriguing things like predictive analytics that might help you look forward.

Then, at a dinner with some new ERM Partners (now new friends), I had the most energizing conversation of the month. They reminded me of the most powerful tool for looking forward: gathering smart people with different perspectives in structured ways to create powerful, insightful interactions. Getting and using that insight is subtle. You can mine data; you have to harvest insight. By creating the right platforms and processes we can help our people articulate, compare and combine insights. We can get better at sniffing out the weak signals already coming our way, and finding ways to amplify them without distorting them.

That may create a foggy and messy view through the front windshield, but it sure beats looking backward.

[Scott Nadler is a Senior Partner at ERM.  To share this post, see additional posts on Scott’s blog or to subscribe please go to snadler.com. Opinions on this site are solely those of Scott Nadler and do not necessarily represent views of those quoted or cited, ERM, its partners or clients.]