It Is Too Hard Or Impossible…

July 15, 2014

** Admitting that you don’t know how to make the sausage will always cast doubt on the quality of the sausage you do produce. **

One of my personal risk management aggravations relates to risk management professionals that claim it is too hard or impossible to quantify the frequency or severity of loss. First, there is the irony that we operate in a problem space of uncertainty and then make absolute statements that something cannot be done. When I witness this type of uttering, I will often challenge the person on the spot – keeping in mind the audience – in an effort to pull that person off the edge of mental failure. And make no mistake, I struggle with quantification as well – but to what degree I share that with stakeholders or peers is an aspect of professional perception that I intentionally manage. Reflecting on my own experiences and interactions with others, I want to share some quick litmus tests I use when addressing the “it is too hard or impossible” challenges.

1. Problem Scoping. Have I scoped the problem or challenge too broadly? Sometimes we take these super-big, gnarly problem spaces and become fascinated with them without trying to deconstruct the problem into more manageable chunks. Often, once you begin reducing your scope, the variables that drive frequency or severity will emerge.

2. Subject Matter Experts. This is one litmus test that I have to attribute to Jack Jones and the FAIR methodology. Often, we are not the best person to be making subject matter estimates for the variables that factor into the overall risk. The closer you get to the true experts and extract their knowledge for your analysis, the more robust and meaningful your analysis will become. In addition, leveraging subject matter experts fosters collaboration and in some cases innovation where leaders of unrelated value chains realize there is opportunity to reduce risk across one or more chains.

3. Extremes and Calibration. Once again, I have Jack Jones to thank for this litmus test and Doug Hubbard as well. Recently, a co-worker declared something was impossible to measure (workforce, increased expense related). After his “too hard” declaration, I simply asked: “Will it cost us more than $1BN?” The question stunned my co-worker, which resulted in a “Of course not!” to which I replied “It looks like it is greater than zero and less than 1 billion, we are making progress!” Here is the point, we can tease extremes and leverage calibration techniques to narrow down our uncertainty and define variable ranges versus anchoring in on a single, discreet value.

4. Am I Trying Hard Enough. This is a no-brainer but unfortunately I feel too many of us do not try hard enough. A simple phone call, email or even well crafted Google query can quickly provide useful information that in turn reduces our uncertainty.

These are just a few “litmus tests” you can use to evaluate if an estimation or scenario is too hard to quantify. But here is the deal, as risk professionals it is expected that we deal with tough things so our decision makers don’t have too.