Blog now on my new websites
As I prepare to leave my employment with Associated British Ports and transition back out into freelance consultancy, research and writing, I'm 'freezing' this site and focusing on my new company www.potentiality.uk and on my collaboration with Eleanor Winton as www.actupondisruption.com.
Resistance: logical, legitimate and the best lever you have for positive change?
Looking forward today to the 2nd Relationship Management Conference for Higher Education Information Professionals and talking about my experience of dealing with what some might call 'resistance to change' as a positive idea. Great to have the opportunity to draw on my experiences in practice and my doctoral research, and to listen to others speak. Based on the titles it's going to be a really interesting two days. #rmlibs
Change fatigue - No.1 corporate risk again this quarter - some thoughts from valued colleagues
A couple of weeks ago I shared a link on LinkedIn that...
Change fatigue is the No.1 emerging risk again this quarter. Time for some different thinking on whether big programmes of change are the optimal way to keep ahead? My research into change from the perspective of the people whose work is intended to change (not the usual change agent centric view) might be coming of age... https://lnkd.in/d_75UVs
Great that the post got more than 4000 views (quite amazing) but what I want to share here are really considered and important comments from three colleagues - all quite different - but all really valuable.
Guy Sorrill at Sysdoc.Thanks for this Ruth. I was having this very conversation with a colleague today. Portfolio view of change across an enterprise (from the people perspective) very much needed.
Dr Ruth Murray-WebsterDead right Guy - my experience is that embedding portfolio management in practice is tricky (getting senior leaders to give up personal goals of the good of the collective), but if you can crack it then smaller changes can happen and embed (and deliver value) rather than large scale, overly ambitious programmes that promise much but deliver little. Some other really valid points from others too about a) convincing senior leadership that this is the case (thanks Liz) , and b) the imperative to 'refreeze' after change - consolidating routines so they have embedded meaning which interestingly from my doctoral research is a prerequisite for future change (thanks Rod). Looking forward to an ongoing conversation through various means :
Rod SowdenCouldn't agree more Ruth. The original change theories like Lewin and the unfreeze move and refreeze model are still very relevant as people need time to adapt and become confident and competent at the new level. The problem is we don't refreeze, the current concepts of continual change are ignoring the fact we are still mark 1 human beings emotionally. I reckon this could be at the core of why the UK has some of the lowest productivity figures in the G20, we are rarely stable enough to be productive
Dr Ruth Murray-WebsterHey Rod, good to be talking. One finding from my doctoral research - not looked for but stumbled upon - was that organisation found it impossible to change because routines weren't 'frozen' in the first place. So I totally agree that we don't take time to refreeze. But because we haven't refrozen then future change is really difficult. Would value an ongoing conversation about this...
Liz Needham MA HRM, Chartered MCIPDThanks for sharing Ruth, I agree that we need to do more to put those impacted by change at the centre of what we do. We've just done a good job of that on a global CRM re-launch but it takes time and that often conflicts with business goals. We don't often value the longer-term impact as much as we should.
Dr Ruth Murray-WebsterThank you Liz and I agree. A major challenge for us all to get senior leaders to focus on making change work (i.e. embedding some value) rather than chasing the more benefit that can't be practically achieved because the change for the people involved needs time... Would value an ongoing conversation.
Hindsight's a wonderful thing and shocking that people still think taking a calculated risk is such a bad thing
Whatever your view on UK politics, I've been shocked today at the extent to which our press is so smug and condescending when someone in public life takes a calculated risk and it doesn't work out. I haven't met anyone yet who could predict the future with certainty - we all deal with uncertainty - and we take calculated risks in pursuit of our objectives. Sometimes things work out - either because we're skilful or lucky. Sometimes they don't. If we live in a world where we condemn those who have a go we'll always underachieve - in our politics, in our businesses, in our relationships. Bravo Theresa May for having a go at strengthening your mandate to negotiate Brexit for us (even though I didn't want it in the first place). Bravo Nick Clegg for being bold enough to go into a coalition with the Conservatives and risk your liberal values for the opportunity to make a difference rather than having to resort to commenting from the sidelines. Bravo Jeremy Corbyn for holding your nerve through the shameful personal attacks on your character and intellect. Shame on you BBC with your smug rhetoric and know-it-all attitude. Those who like to be smug with hindsight - stand up and lead yourselves maybe and see how good your foresight is.
I often spend so much time thinking about risk and change in the context of helping people achieve their organisation's objectives that I forget to use the same disciplines to think about personal objectives - health, relationships, personal resiliency.
You may or may not be a person of faith, with a belief in something bigger and more powerful than ourselves (and you may or may not call that something God), but it's an interesting thing to me the extent to which we take responsibility for managing risk to our objectives (e.g. by changing how much chocolate we eat (substitute your own vice!), changing our exercise habits, buying critical illness insurance) and the extent to which we trust in that greater force (a loving God, fate, karma) to determine the outcome.
My friend and colleague David Hillson and I have a Christian faith. This is what he has to say on the subject If you've got 30 minutes I'd recommend a listen/watch of David's message. Just click on the button below.
Diversification and transparency
Interesting that I've been asked to return to a Community Housing Cymru conference, this time to talk about risk as a route to diversification and transparency - both critical needs for housing associations as they grapple with the changing needs of society, changing funding arrangements and changing governance.
I say interesting as in this next phase of my career - 50% Group Head of Risk at Associated British Ports and 50% doing my own thing as Potentiality UK - I am doing an increasing amount of work with organisations who get that risk is not just downside and that managing risk requires a more holistic approach to thinking how to seize upside uncertainties and how to defend again the downsides.
I'm excited to be working again with ex KPMG colleague Eleanor Winton - more from our collaboration here very soon.
But for now, I wanted to share that I think CHC have got it right - managing risk is about managing diversification and managing transparency.
I was privileged on Thursday to speak at the Community Housing Cymru Governance Conference. There was a large group of people with a real buzz and a passion for getting governance right. I talked about risk appetite and the importance of good conversations and practical frameworks and hopefully inspired a few housing association Board members to go beyond thinking that their appetite for risk is 'low' or 'medium' and instead think about tolerable ranges of outcome for each strategic objective.
The title is not a put down - just me quoting Professor John Carver who said that many Boards are incompetent groups of competent people.
Engaging Boards to have good conversations about 'how much risk is too much risk' is perhaps one way that they can do important work and, through conversation about something that really matters, become more competent groups?
Since my first encounter with the poems and songs of Leonard Cohen back in the early 1980's, I've smiled at the taunts of my family that my music choices are morbid and boring.
The passing of Leonard Cohen will hopefully bring others to his wonderful work for the first time, or for me this weekend, to read and listen again.
For this post though I repeat a section of the article in the FT Weekend that rejoiced in Cohen's skill to show over and over again, 'that strength can be found in weakness and peace in turmoil'.
A sentiment for us all - at this time, and for all time.
Take more risk - dubious advice?
On Monday 10th October I'll be the keynote speaker at an APM event exploring the importance (or not) of risk management in project-based change.
Whether you are a proponent or not of the binary notions of project success and project failure, it's a fact that I've been reminded of again this week that stakeholder confidence is built on our ability to set expectations about how much things will cost and when you'll deliver them.
In this pursuit of certainty of expectation we MUST understand and know how to express risk, i.e. when NOT to be precisely incorrect about what we can deliver.
Stakeholders that need certainty of expectation are not avoiding risk - just wanting to take it with their eyes open. If, like me, you work in project based change, you'll be needing to work out how to do this better so we can help our organisations to create value out of taking more (considered) risk.
Delighted this week to say that I'm now responsible for risk management in ABP as part of my role as Director, Change Portfolio. I'm blessed to have a CEO who gets risk and the potential for creating value from more intelligent risk-taking. Very exciting.
Also good to have this blog post published by Kogan Page this week too.
It made me smile earlier this week to be featured as 'author of the week' for Project Management World Journal, on on-line journal and extensive library of thought pieces on project management. It's a really good resource so you might want to take a look, or follow them on social media?
You can find them on:
and can follow them on
The particular article in question revisited the work that David Hillson and I did in our book, 'A Short Guide to Risk Appetite' which was published in 2012. Since then I have worked with that topic lots in my former role as a KPMG Director, and more recently in my current role. Here's the start of the piece. The 'answer' for me can be summed up in the four C's in the title.
Here's the start of the article...
There is a growing recognition that a proper understanding of risk appetite is a vital influence on organisational performance. This is supported by regulators who expect boards to understand and express their risk appetite, and some senior executives in a range of public and private sector organisations are already taking a lead in this area.
This is a good start, but there is still confusion about how to define risk appetite and then use it to ensure that the organisation doesn’t take on too much risk (or too little).
Our book “A Short Guide to Risk Appetite” * (Hillson & Murray-Webster, 2012) attempts to dispel that confusion and provide clear advice on the topic.
There are four important factors to consider when defining risk appetite.....
Risk and organisational change
Really happy to have been invited to write chapters on risk and organisational change for two Kogan Page books.
The first, The Risk Management Handbook edited by David Hillson is now in print and available from www.koganpage.com and all great bookstores as they say!
My chapter draws from my doctoral research and (hopefully) makes the case for a joined up approach to managing risk during organisational change efforts - a subject really close to my heart.
How pleased and proud I am that my 15 year old daughter, fresh back from a history trip to WW1 battlefields at half term, now 'gets' what Remembrance is all about.
How do personal preferences about risk taking influence organisational culture and decision-making
For the last 5-6 years I've been working with a fabulous psychometric test - the Risk-Type Compass with senior leaders - Boards and Exec Teams.
If you'd like to know more, there is a free event taking place at KPMG's offices in Canary Wharf (15 Canada Square) on Tuesday 8th December (8.30 to 10.30). More details on the link. Might see you there?
My new job role 'coordinating' the ambitious change portfolio for ABP is keeping me thinking. One thing that I've thought about and discussed with my new colleagues is what we all understand by the word 'coordinate'. I'm to do lots of coordinating in my portfolio management role, but is that a glorified 'administrative' role, or something much more significant? Not everyone is clear. I was pleased therefore to read the attached blog on the Cranfield School of Management Performance Management website, written by Mike Lauder, my fellow traveller on the road to achieving our Doctorates between 2008 and 2012.
What is hidden in the word coordination? Important I get a consensus on that very quickly!
New specs, new job, I'm back...
I've had a great year in KPMG doing some really interesting risk and change related work with some of the biggest companies in the world - what a privilege. I've now moved into a new and brilliantly exciting role as Director of the Change Portfolio for Associated British Ports Ltd. I wasn't looking for a new job but this one came along and I feel really blessed for the opportunity to bring all I've done in my career together to help ABP implement truly transformational business change and to continue to meet its mission to Keep Britain Trading through our maritime ports.
Testament to my age and experience that I have transitioned myself from a 'specs on, specs off' life to my studious and grown up varifocals.
And now I'm not worried that my personal views might be interpreted as those of KPMG LLP, then I'm back on the blog.
Not that I'm the most prolific blogger in the world, but maybe some of you have missed me since the last post in January. I'll spare all the boring 'too busy' reasons for radio silence although I increasingly find it difficult to find the bandwidth to 'think then do' rather than just 'do' - this is a problem that I observe with lots of the people I meet.
The point of this blog though is just to capture, once again, that I believe we're doomed as a society if we don't embrace risk and change together - especially when forming and implementing strategy.
I have been perplexed, for example, to hear Board Directors of PLCs say 'of course we consider uncertainty and risk when forming strategy' then fail to be able to say how other than 'we check after the fact that our chosen strategy doesn't break any rules'. I have been equally perplexed to hear colleagues who work in strategic and management consulting to not get how understanding risk at an appetite and behaviours level is vital to making good decisions and creating value.
Sometimes I wonder whether I have the energy to keep on banging the drum. Today I decided I did have the energy to at least give the drum a little tap through this blog. Makes me feel better if nothing else.
How sad that the regional accent debate is still seen to be relevant in 2015. The BBC's Broadcasting House programme on Radio 4 today dealt with it really well - exposing the continuing prejudice of 'Oxford English' speakers to regional accents when dealing with serious topics. It's not good enough to say that we now have equality of accent by pointing out that popular entertainment programmes feature Cheryl, Ant & Dec, Adrian Chiles, Tess Daly. Regional accents aren't just about comedy or reality TV or sport - we do serious stuff too.
The research conducted by Dr Katie Edwards at the University of Sheffield shows how our prevailing culture still continues to link accent to intellect, with regional accents (different vowel sounds) however clearly spoken communicating stupidity. The title of the post is something that was actually said to Dr Edwards who has a accent not unlike mine.
Closer to home - a lecturer at the University of the West of England actually ridiculed students with northern accents as 'stupid' in a lecture a few weeks ago - my son's girlfriend was one of the ones being ridiculed.
Reason to bow to pressure and change my vowel sounds to fit with the establishment? No way, and shame on those who think they have to be 'posher' to be taken seriously.
It seems strange to me that if you do an internet search on 'embracing uncertainty', all you get is self-help about overcoming personal doubt and fear. That's a good thing for individuals to do - but what about organisations? Is embracing organisational uncertainty about overcoming doubt and fear too? I'm guessing (hoping) most people would think that this is very partial perspective but unfortunately the way that many organisations think about risk is in this vein - they think about what might hurt them, then try to minimise that hurt. It leads to partial understanding of uncertainty and often to erosion of value.
Embracing uncertainty in organisational settings is about understanding what you want to do (strategy and objectives), understanding what uncertainties might lead you towards or away from what you want (risks) then deciding what actions to take to secure a return on investment with a tolerable chance of success.
The hardest part of this is to understand the uncertainties that matter in as objective a way as possible - with the organisations' collective eyes open, and with open minds to appreciate different perspectives on what might happen and how much it would matter.
My role is to help senior leaders to embrace uncertainty with their eyes and minds open. Often, the biggest hurdle to doing that is to overcome the perspective that embracing uncertainty is only about dealing with doubts and fears (of shareholders, staff, self) about what might go wrong.
I'm looking forward in 2015 to thinking of yet more ways to persuade senior leaders to stop thinking about risk with a narrow view and to start truly embracing the many sources of uncertainty that relate to their strategy.
It's long been understood in some sectors and scenarios that the 'heat map' (probability impact grid, risk assessment matrix, risk map or whatever term you may use for the 3 x 3 or 5 x 5 grid you use to prioritise risks) is not that useful.
It's only a prioritisation tool.
It doesn't help much in assessing the overall riskiness of the situation you are in, and
It's such a subjective and biased process to put one together that you shouldn't really bet your company on one!
Douglas Hubbard's book - "The Failure of Risk Management - why it's broken and how to fix it" covers this in many more words than I have here.
Unfortunately it seems that either this isn't understood, or people don't know what to do differently.
Techniques for doing it differently exist - both numbers and stats based models - and words and relationships based approaches - and this blog is just a plea to open eyes and use them more.
In my last blog posting (ages ago - must do more!) I talked about the new requirements of the FRC corporate governance code for companies listed in London. Directors must embrace risk-thinking to manage the company and provide reasonable information for investors.
If we look 'beyond the heat map' then it becomes much easier to do.
On 1st October 2014 the revised UK Corporate Governance Code became effective for all companies listed on the London Stock Exchange.
One of the requirements of the revised Code is for companies to provide a ‘viability statement’ that looks out beyond a 12-month horizon and provides information to investors about longer-term financial stability and volatility.
It’s obvious to me, and hopefully to you that doing this relies on having really high quality risk information, not just the anecdotal heat map that we all could have drawn up without knowing anything much about the company in the first place.
I was intrigued to read a spokesman for the Institute of Directors (The Times, 22nd October and IoD website) who was saying that looking out beyond 12-months wasn’t a reasonable request. The old chestnut about crystal balls was mentioned and it make me remember that there remains much about RISK information that people don’t seem able to grasp, i.e. it’s about a potential future – it isn’t data – it can’t be ‘true’ or ‘correct’ – it’s an estimate or a forecast.
But with estimates/forecasts, we need to know confidence levels. Of course you cannot be sure – investors aren’t daft – they don’t expect 100% certainty – but they also expect forecasts based on the best risk information you can get, and that requires:
· An obsessive interest in scanning the horizon and seeing what might be coming your way.
· An open-mindedness to new data, new ideas, thoughts and perceptions of colleagues.
· An ability to take lots of input then model how all that might play out on the objectives that matter most to you.
The really exciting thing for business though is that if you do all the good stuff so you can comply with the FRC regulations, you also stand a chance of improving your performance and creating the competitive advantage needed to achieve or improve on your forecasts.
Does it make sense to you that the best risk managers are the ones who are happy to change their mind?
“When my information changes, I alter my conclusions. What do you do, Sir?”
This quotation, attributed to John Maynard Keynes, arguably the most influential macro-economist in history got me thinking when reading another fabulous article written by Tim Harford, best known as “The Undercover Economist” in the FT Weekend magazine.
Tim was talking about forecasting, and what makes for ‘super-forecasting’, i.e. a system involving multiple people with the sole purpose of getting predictions about the future as correct as possible (as opposed to promoting themselves, marketing a product, making a political point or the myriad other reasons why people try to predict the future.
The advice, informed by the ‘Good Judgment Project’ – an massive experiment in forecasting being run by some people in the US – resonated given the many hundreds of conversations I’ve had professionally with people who spend their life trying to make good judgments about potential future situations (risks).
The normal stuff is there, i.e:
· Use relevant comparisons as a starting point if they exist
· Historical trends can help – look at the data if they exist but don’t forecast solely on this
· Experts disagree – listen to lots of them, then pick a mid-point to inform the ongoing picture
· When there are multiple variables you can understand, build a model
· Known biases exists and can be allowed for – take them into account
But the part that intrigued me relates to the John Maynard Keynes quote. Our formal education teaches us to be systematic, precise and to seek correctness and certainty. The list above suggests that the people who would be good at this stuff are ones who like data and detail, yet the over-riding finding of researches is that the people who makes the best forecasts (i.e. the ones who get superior results when they have acted on their judgments) are the ones that are ‘actively open-minded’; people who seek out fresh evidence and aren’t afraid to change their mind in the face of it.
An interesting point for leaders and decision-makers everywhere this morning!
… before casting their vote on Thursday.
I completely believe that the people of Scotland have the right to self-determination, and I'm not going to join in with stating my preference for the outcome on Thursday, although married to a Scottish husband and with proud half-Scottish kids, then we are certainly very interested in our house.
Decision-making always has an element of uncertainty and decision-makers need to make judgements on how to proceed based on the data available (some trustworthy, some maybe not) and trying not to fall into an irrational trap. Risk assessment is such an integral part of decision-making because it helps to frame the problem and sensitise decision-makers to some of the potential consequences of their choice. It's not a science, but it always needs more than a gut-based, fingers crossed behind the back approach.
So for the Scottish people who have been handed this huge decision to make, I hope that they can find a way of balancing the rhetoric, and thinking about long-term consequences, not just short-term victories, or worries (depending on their perspectives).
Whatever the outcome on Thursday, the Union as we have known it in our lifetime will be changed forever. Let's hope that the people of Scotland get a great outcome for them, and that the rest of us get our say in the outcome for us.
Today my Grandad would have celebrated his 104th birthday. What would he have said to me, travelling to London to start a new job in corporate life after 18 years of self-employment? Probably something like – “well I have no idea what you do, but if that’s what you want then go for it, and try your best”. So that’s what I’m going to do.
Yesterday was also a time for reflection about how my kids are no longer ‘my kids’ but are thoughtful, caring and grown-up young people. How many times have I encouraged them about the first day at a new something, telling them they’ll be great, taking a photo before they left (I was too big to stand on the kitchen table to have mine taken this morning!) and walking them to the gate. How thankful I am that Josh and Liz decided to ‘walk me to the gate’ today (on the train to Canary Wharf with me) and that Helen fell asleep last night telling me not to worry, I’ll be great.
So, I’ll be going for it, doing my best, and with a positive expectation that I’ll do a great job for KPMG UK, Risk in the Boardroom.