Things are not always as they appear.

During this first quarter of 2021, I have had fantastic conversations on the @Risk podcast with a diverse group of experts and thought leaders on topics stretching from racism to whistleblowing. Each guest shares fascinating factoids, insights garnered from decades of research and reflection, as well as a personal anecdote or two! Reflecting on them collectively, what strikes me the most is how risk can unexpectedly be refracted by biases, emotions and inertia.

We can anticipate, challenge and correct for these refractions by testing our risk perceptions in the following ways:

Question how a thing that is threatened might also be a threat to something else;

Risk mitigation and elimination efforts have to move at the speed of its threats;

Don’t be too quick to accept risk by keeping a keen eye out for the management opportunities hidden among or disguised as inherent risks;

Keep an eye out for risk traps created by over indexing against one type of risk leading to greater exposure to others.

How did I arrive at these suggestions? Please read on to discover how my conversations on the @Risk podcast lead here …

Property is not subject to risk; it creates risk? After years of taking out insurance policies on various chattels that thought may alarm you. But that is exactly what Professor Rinaldo Walcott believes to be true. Walcott is an Associate Professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto; the Director of Women and Gender Studies Institute; and the author of On Property. In On Property, Walcott draws a direct link between property, policing, and the subjugation of Black people. He doesn’t think more Black people in positions of authority is the answer; rather, he believes it is necessary to reorganize our society more fundamentally. You may think it sounds like Walcott has given up on equality and humanity’s better nature. Nope. He’ll tell you: he is a relentless optimist, who dares us to take on the re-writing of the source code of our society, which excites him and gives him hope. It is an invitation for all of us to think differently about how we support ending anti-Black racism by re-examining what causes and sustains it. I certainly won’t think about the words “property risk” as uni-dimensionally and will endeavor to question how a thing that is threatened might also be a threat to something else?

It takes more than a good guy with cyber security expertise to beat a bad guy with cyber security expertise? It might have been true at one point that you just needed to hire the best security talent to defeat cyber attacks but that’s not the case any longer, according to Shuman Ghosemajumder. Ghosemajumder is the Global Head of Artificial Intelligence at F5 Networks. Previously, he was an early product manager at Google, helping to launch Gmail and leading global product management for click fraud protection. He is a regular guest lecturer at Stanford University and in 2011, the Boston Globe named him to their MIT150 list, as one of the top innovators of all-time from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Ghosemajumder has enjoyed a front row seat to the sector growing exponentially in terms of import and dollars, as well as to cyber security’s parallel-tracked and slogging fight to take its seat at the table. He remains optimistic cyber security can keep apace with the evolving threats to it and that the culture that used to routinely think of security as an afterthought is changing for the better. He nevertheless suggests that the time has come to stop thinking about cyber security as a matter of personal or even individual corporate responsibility. There has been a proliferation of networked attack surfaces, like “smart” appliances and any and all apps’ insatiable appetite for our data. The sophistication of criminal cyber networks cum state actors has increased exponentially as well. This all adds up to needing to identify and adopt systemic security solutions. It’s impossible for there to be enough talent to go around to prevent one of your vendors or devices from being turned into a wormhole into your or someone else’s systems. Just ask SolarWinds or any one of its customers. Risk mitigation has to move at the speed of its threats or faster. No rest for the weary!

Your risk aversion may be exposing you to greater risk? Often what stands between us and disaster is a whistleblower. Think of all the popular films we love about whistleblowers: Erin Brokovitch, Silkwood, Serpico, Watergate,… Also consider the horrible reprisals those whistleblowers faced from people in power when they came forward. Not every whistleblower is a knight in shining armour but shouldn’t we want to hear from anyone who believes better is possible? And yet most private companies, as well as Canadian provincial and federal governments, do not have adequate whistleblower protection policies. We are in the middle of a pandemic where one of the first signals we had that serious trouble was afoot came in the form of social media messages from a doctor, Dr. Li Wenliang, warning of a SARS-like virus spreading in Wuhan. He was later accused of spreading rumours by the Chinese government and died of COVID-19. Closer to home, Dr. John O’Connor blew the whistle on elevated cancer rates in Fort Chipewyan, downstream from the Alberta tar sands, in 2006 and then became the subject of complaints that threatened his medical license. After speaking with Dr. O’Connor and to a legal expert in this area, it is hard to understand why adequate whistleblower protections don’t exist but it’s also kind of obvious. Nobody likes to hear bad news. Nobody wants to be embarrassed. Due to our aversion to reputational risk, we may in fact carry greater risk by not knowing at the earliest opportunity about serious problems that may be brewing. By over indexing against one type of risk, we may be exposing ourselves to greater risk. Keep an eye out for these risk traps!

Growing old doesn’t have to be as risky as it is today? Ageing is inevitable but the extent of the current mortality risks that come with it are not. We all understand the concept of ‘wear and tear’ and some of us may have already experienced it in the form of sore knees. But the risks older adults carry extend well beyond the natural forces of ageing. Am I trying to sell you some sort of a miracle drug? No, definitely not. Instead, I am pleased to introduce you to Dr. Samir Sinha’s eye-opening research. As but one example, Dr. Sinha found that older Canadians consistently experience the greatest proportion of casualties during and after disasters in Canada. Prepared in collaboration with the Canadian Red Cross, Dr Sinha’s research demonstrates that COVID-19 is not unique in its disproportionate effect on older Canadians. In 2010, more than half of all deaths resulting from heat waves in Quebec were among persons aged 75 years or older. Similar disproportionate impacts were seen following Hurricane Katrina as well in the United States. Congregate care settings may elevate our risk of bad outcomes due to poor design but Dr Sinha diagnoses another cause: ageism. We cannot stop the signs of ageing yet but we can do something now to curb the deleterious impacts of ageism. Don’t be too quick to accept risk; keep a keen eye out for the management opportunities lurking around inherent risks!

You may not believe that dismantling our capitalist society is the answer to ending anti-Black racism. You many not schedule a Zoom with your boss to suggest he terminate the CIO in favour of systemic solutions or to demand whistleblower policies be instituted. But that is not the objective. The value is in interrogating and challenging how we view risk. The ways in which our perceptions of risk nudge us toward making decisions that may increase our risk exposures deserves our attention. What may seem inevitable may in fact be highly alterable, so long as we interrogate our sense of futility about it. Even when we adequately scope a risk, our threat responses must evolve with the same nimbleness that the threats themselves enjoy, despite our tendency to fall in love with our plans.

How do we overcome our fears and anxieties; the comfort that comes with having always done things a certain way; or our biases that have been baked in over generations and that are consistently reinforced in subtle and not-so-subtle ways? How do our emotions, inertia and the forces of bias refract risk causing us to accept sub-optimal or even dangerous outcomes? I believe the only way we can begin to understand it is through talking, calling it out and hearing from as many different perspectives as possible. I’m grateful to Dr. Sinha, Ms. Vass Bednar, Mr Ghosemajumder, Dr O’Connor, Mr. David Yazbeck and Prof Walcott for being guests of the show this quarter. On the @Risk podcast, we are listening to and speaking with thoughtful Canadians who invest their careers, intellectual capital and reputations on challenging our assumptions about risk. We are doing the work together that the central question of the podcast demands: do you truly value something if you are not thinking about how you could lose it? Join us!

Happy almost Spring, j