Six Mistakes Executives Make in Risk Management


Nassim N. Taleb, Daniel G. Goldstein, and Mark W. Spitznagel discuss risk management and short comings in approaches in the October 2009 issue of the Harvard Business Review (subscription required).

They offer up six mistakes in the way we think about risk:

1.  We think we can manage risk by predicting extreme events.
2.  We are convinced that studying the past will help us manage risk.
3.  We don’t listen to advice about what we shouldn’t do.
4.  We assume that risk can be measured by standard deviation.
5.  We don’t appreciate that what’s mathematically equivalent isn’t psychologically so.
6.  We are taught that efficiency and maximizing shareholder value don’t tolerate redundancy.

Black Swan events – low-probability, high-impact events that are almost impossible to forecast— are increasingly dominating the economic environment. The world is a complex system, made up of a tangled web of relationships and other interdependent factors.  Complexity makes forecasting even ordinary events impossible. So, complexity increases the incidence of Black Swan events as we have a harder time seeing the relationship and connection. All we can predict is that Black Swan events will occur and we won’t expect them.

The authors propose a different approach to risk management:

“Instead of trying to anticipate low-probability, high-impact events, we should reduce our vulnerability to them. Risk management, we believe, should be about lessening the impact of what we don’t understand—not a futile attempt to develop sophisticated techniques and stories that perpetuate our illusions of being able to understand and predict the social and economic environment.”

The authors end up equating risk to ancient mythology:

“Remember that the biggest risk lies within us: We overestimate our abilities and underestimate what can go wrong. The ancients considered hubris the greatest defect, and the gods punished it mercilessly. Look at the number of heroes who faced fatal retribution for their hubris: Achilles and Agamemnon died as a price of their arrogance; Xerxes failed because of his conceit when he attacked Greece; and many generals throughout history have died for not recognizing their limits. Any corporation that doesn’t recognize its Achilles’ heel is fated to die because of it.”

That is a bit lofty for my tastes. After all, the danger of the black swan is that you don’t know that you don’t know about that risk. If you know about a risk, you can deal with it. If you know that you don’t know about risk, you can manage that also. It’s hard to be a victim of hubris when you don’t know the danger for your downfall even exists.

Nassim N. Taleb is the Distinguished Professor of Risk Engineering at New York University’s Polytechnic Institute and a principal of Universa Investments, a firm in Santa Monica, California. He is the author of several books, including The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. Daniel G. Goldstein is an assistant professor of marketing at London Business School and a principal research scientist at Yahoo. Mark W. Spitznagel is a principal of Universa Investments.