Improving Risk Management: From Lame Excuses to Principled Practice

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The three classic pillars of risk analysis are risk assessment (how big is the risk and how sure can we be?), risk management (what shall we do about it?), and risk communication (what shall we say about it, to whom, when, and how?). We propose two complements as important parts of these three bases: risk attribution (who or what addressable conditions actually caused an accident or loss?) and learning from experience about risk reduction (what works, and how well?). Failures in complex systems usually evoke blame, often with insufficient attention to root causes of failure, including some aspects of the situation, design decisions, or social norms and culture. Focusing on blame, however, can inhibit effective learning, instead eliciting excuses to deflect attention and perceived culpability. Productive understanding of what went wrong, and how to do better, thus requires moving past recrimination and excuses. This article identifies common blame-shifting “lame excuses” for poor risk management. These generally contribute little to effective improvements and may leave real risks and preventable causes unaddressed. We propose principles from risk and decision sciences and organizational design to improve results. These start with organizational leadership. More specifically, they include: deliberate testing and learning—especially from near-misses and accident precursors; careful causal analysis of accidents; risk quantification; candid expression of uncertainties about costs and benefits of risk-reduction options; optimization of tradeoffs between gathering additional information and immediate action; promotion of safety culture; and mindful allocation of people, responsibilities, and resources to reduce risks. We propose that these principles provide sound foundations for improving successful risk management.

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