When NOT Talking About Risk is Risky
The Inconvenient Future Blindspots of Executive Wisdom
After seeing a movie about the future, have you ever left the
theatre feeling a bit — disoriented?
Whether it’s The Matrix or Star Trek, Ex Machina or WALL-E, when a
futuristic film ends it can leave you in another world. You can find yourself
uneasily stepping back into your day-to-day reality.
You might feel disappointment or relief, depending on the nature of the
story. But connecting the dots from the future back to the real world can
take an adjustment.
The same thing can happen when executives dive into future-
Taking time to envision your organization’s future — well beyond five years
out — can provide fascinating new insights that can be heart-pumping and
inspiring, and sometimes a little scary. Future-thinking and sensemaking
can reveal a variety of new opportunities for your organization, as well as
uncover some uncomfortable disruptors (if you are bold enough to navigate the discomfort).
But when you leave the “future-thinking theatre”, and are confronted with
your current reality, the question becomes:
What can you DO about that future — TODAY? How are you going
to deal with the risk of getting there?
It’s at this point we find executives often have a blind spot. Not being able
to objectively address risk when shaping a new future can compromise their wisdom — and their organization’s ability to seize that future.
The world is 4x faster, 8x more uncertain and 12x more ambiguous than it
was a generation ago.
In this increasingly uncertain environment, the risks are real, whether it’s
the risk of loss or the risk of missing windows of opportunity.
But many executives find it’s more comfortable to wax eloquently about their future than talk about how they are going to manage through the uncertainty and risks of getting there.
We get it. It’s uncomfortable. But there are serious consequences.
- When there aren’t easy answers, some leaders clam up. They
don’t know what to say so they say nothing. And people around them
fill in the silence with worst-case scenarios and fight-or-flight
reactions. Anxiety reigns.
- Some leaders with a strong vision lock in on a strategy
based on their gut — damn the torpedoes. But in their zeal,
these leaders often stop listening to other perspectives. Discussions of
risks to their strategy are shut down. It’s “my way or the highway”.
And the very people that are needed to pull off that strategy get
confused, skeptical and frustrated. They can get trampled by all the
elephants in the room.
- And then there are the analytic leaders with all the answers.
When asked about any risks they see in their strategy, these leaders
quickly respond with “Don’t worry. I’ve got it all handled.” The entire
organization is supposed to be immune to disruption because Papa
Bear has it all under control. Until he doesn’t.
In an uncertain environment, NOT talking about risk is RISKY.
Connecting the dots between the future and today’s reality starts
with your eyes wide open.
- It requires scanning and sensemaking, spotting trends and creating
- It requires being clear-eyed about the future. No B.S.
- It means building a vision that defines values, clarifies purpose and
builds passion for creating the future you want.
- It means creating a clear strategy and aligning your resources in
context of that future.
And it means having the courage to openly talk about risk and
what you can do NOW to get ready.
This requires being able to quickly build out scenarios and back cast to
action, surfacing outlooks and unlocking breakthroughs.
It might be counter-intuitive, but one of the best ways to eliminate anxiety
in an organization is to address uncertainty and risk head-on.
When leaders openly address risk, the less powerful the anxiety becomes.
In fact, psychologists have found that directly addressing risk can take the
wind out of anxiety’s sails.
Did you know that Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy
encourages you to face your fears when confronted with anxiety — but at a
level, you can tolerate? Over time, patients learn that the thoughts and
feelings that prompt distress are more bearable than they anticipated. The
thoughts and feelings and uncertainty that they worried about do not
necessarily lead to the outcomes they feared.
As a leader, you can leverage this concept by helping your team
get comfortable with “what if’s” and worst-case scenarios.
You can turn elephant-in-the-room-sized-nightmares into smaller issues
that simply require a practical plan. How might you do that?
Let’s say you’ve just spent a month doing some thorough future-thinking
and sensing, and you’ve turned up some disruptive trends. Your leadership
team is buzzing with the implications on your business. Some are excited.
Some have real concerns. Some are frustrated.
“Okay”, you might say, “I hear you. Let’s talk about how we would deal with
that (nightmare-future-scenario) or (opportunity window) if it came up?”
- “What do we ALREADY have in place that could help us move
- “What can we do NOW to be more prepared?”
- “What would YOU need to feel confident and equipped to tackle this
In fact, regularly talking about your future and risk can become a
Creating a systematic approach to regularly sensing changes around you
can help you prepare for the downside and quickly seize windows of
Anxiety dissipates as people realize that you and your leadership team are
comfortable with the uncertainty yourselves. They become more
comfortable with uncertainty too, and ready to quickly shift gears.
Employees and customers will catch your enthusiasm for the unknown.
At Cygnus Sprints, we believe that openly talking about risk builds
Cygnus Sprints is a community of experts that can help you translate future-thinking and vision into actions to address your biggest uncertainties and risks on projects, strategies, teams or organizations. We know speed matters, so we act in favor of smart actions, synthesizing today and working backwards from your preferred future — in 13 weeks or less.
Creating a regular rhythm of connecting future-thinking with today’s reality enables your organization to TRANSFORM:
- Leaders who needed to have all the answers become comfortable
with minimum viable game plans for different scenarios, not rigidly
invested in driving to one right answer.
- Individuals, once frustrated at seeing opportunity windows and
downside risk that their leaders seem blind to, are encouraged to scan
themselves for changes around them, and authorized to make
decisions on-the-ground in light of new information.
- Cross-functional teams and ecosystem partners that may
have been stuck in their silos become more effective and collaborative
systems thinkers, sensing and considering trends and implications
with a wider lens.
If you are leading your organization a new direction, make sure you are
prepared to address the risk of your new future.
It’s one blind spot you can avoid.
Susan Schramm is an Executive Principal for Cygnus Sprints. She helps CEOs, boards, and leadership teams drive high-stakes strategies for faster results and more confident leadership. She serves as a “strategy accelerator”, an ally for senior leaders frustrated strategies are going too slow or worried they are getting off the rails. Susan has held executive roles with IBM, Siemens, Nokia, and Viavi Solutions and serves on many boards. Susan is founder of Go to Market Impact, a consultancy uncovering the hidden risks of their strategy, aligning the organization, and driving results.
This article is part of an ongoing thought leadership series developed by Cygnus Sprints — On-Demand Solutions for a Complex, Sped Up World and powered by the Grey Swan Guild.
Contributors to this article from the Cygnus Sprints team were also fellow Executive Principals and Advisors: Rom Geyoso, Mercedes Batlazar Lobato and Mitchell Halpern.