Risk Management Leadership Lessons – Operations Are Improved when Leaders Welcome Bad News
As the Volkswagen case unravels before our eyes, it plays out a familiar and repeated lesson on dealing with risk. This lesson is that early warning signs were available, but ignored. It appears that Bosch warned VW of the illegal diesel emissions as early as 2007. It is not entirely surprising that VW and its executives ignored the warning. In fact, many of the great risk-driven crises involve firms that ignored early warning signs. Often early warning signs come as disconfirming information – or bad news – information that suggests the prevailing outlook on things is flawed and that a negative outcome is looming.
Let’s look at some other big failures in risk management and how the ignoring of early warning signs played a dangerous role. Evidence shows that BP had many test results, indicating that the critical pressure levels on the doomed Deepwater Horizon well were questionable. Toyota had the benefit of many years of excessively large numbers of customer complaints about accelerators. GM knew of the ignition problems. And, even famously, the NASA leadership team knew of the vulnerability of rubber O-rings in low temperatures (it was below freezing at Cape Canaveral the night before the launch in January, 1986). In all cases, the organizations ignored the information and elected to interpret it in a different manner. Why?
The answer is tied to how we develop our outlooks or hypotheses for the things around us. In these spectacular failures, the organizations and their leaders had early warning signs. Yet the early warning signs were ignored. As humans, we are predisposed to confirmation bias when confronted with new and disconfirming information. That is to say, when we see data that suggests our outlook is wrong, we first interpret the data in a way that still fits our rose-colored outlook. We attempt to discredit the data, the messenger, or the meaning of the data before we question our outlook and theory.
For instance, it results in the following claims: The drivers are the problem with Toyota automobiles, not the accelerators. Inconclusive pressure tests are common in oil well tests, as noted by BP. There is no statistically shown relationship between O-ring failure and temperature, as asserted by NASA before the Challenger explosion. And at VW, our engines are better, in spite of the data and warnings.
Overcoming these challenges is a fundamental one in the management of risk and decision-making. It involves organizational refocus and a diligent examination of disconfirming information or bad news. For the leader, it means opening your personal and professional network to the upward from of disconfirming information. That is not a one-time task, but a change in how you operate and do business.
How a firm operates and makes decisions is tied to how it manages internal decision-making processes. The management of such risk falls under Operational Risk Management. Operational Risk and self-inflicted damages are the cause of the greatest reputational harm. Through cases and simulations, we will explore all of these topics in the upcoming course Operational Risk Master Class: Measurement, Management, and Leadership.
About Russell Walker, Ph.D.
Professor Russell Walker helps companies develop strategies to manage risk and harness value through analytics and Big Data. He is Clinical Associate Professor of Managerial Economics and Decision Sciences at the Kellogg School of Management of Northwestern University.
His most recent book, From Big Data to Big Profits: Success with Data and Analytics is published by Oxford University Press (2015), which explores how firms can best monetize Big Data. He is the author of the text Winning with Risk Management (World Scientific Publishing, 2013), which examines the principles and practice of risk management through business case studies.
He has advised many leading institutions on Operational and Reputational Risk Management, including: The World Bank, SEC, Genworth, Capital One Financial, Discover Financial, PNC, The Bank of England, and the US State Department, among others.