On Seeing Risk Differently

Whenever anyone steps up and tells you that [social media] and the public service don’t mix; when they tell you not to, and when they tell your that you are risking too much tell them that the real risk is failing to soldier on. Tell them that the truth of the matter is this: the real career limiting move is keeping your head down, never taking a risk, and fear-mongering when you realize that the calculated risk-taker beside you is likely to quickly surpass you on the career path. — Nick Charney, The Truth About Career Limiting Moves

I admit (at least I’ve been told, and my experience seems to confirm) that I see risk differently than many people who share my line of work. When it comes to risk, my primary concern is the risk that arises from inaction or leaving assumptions unchallenged. It is a quality that Gilles Paquet impressed upon me very early in my career when I had the privilege to sit next to him on my very first panel, it’s what led me to write Scheming Virtuously, to start this blog, and to otherwise engage myself in the conversation around the public sector. Despite my efforts over the past four years, the dominant worldview is still one that argues that risks (and therefore consequences) arise primarily from taking action and questioning the status quo. I offer no direct evidence, but feel that few among you would argue the point.

Surely, this dichotomy is a false one. But I’d rather talk about its cruel irony than argue over semantics. Perceiving risk in either of the ways I’ve articulated above makes you blind to the other side of the equation. In taking a side we fail to see the absolute potential for risk (and thus consequences) before us. Instead we base our decisions (or more likely our nascent gut reactions) on only one half of the equation. Yet if the idea that consequences more readily follow action than inaction is empirically true, than the equation isn’t a balanced one at all but rather a question that is skewed in favour of status quo thinking. The exact degree to which it is skewed may be directly related to (if not at least correlated with) the distribution of the people across the dichotomy. I can’t help but wonder if this is what people are trying to communicate when they tell me I am a risk-taker (a label that I have never really identified with); that my actions are more likely to be met with negative consequences than others.
When facing consequences, my hope is that, regardless of what side of the divide you sit on, you are willing to take them on the chin.

I certainly am.

Originally published by Nick Charney at cpsrenewal.ca


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Peter Sperry

Personally, i tend to favor calulated risk taking from a secure position. During your probationary period when you can be fired on a whim, keep your head down and learn the ropes. Having gained some tenure, use it to be more agressive but not reckless. Take the time necessary to determine the risk adjusted ROI of each option before charging forward but do not become paralysed by analysis (although for some of us, analysis for its own sake is the most fun part of any job). If there is a major potential benefit to something you are considering and the worst penalty for failure is an uncomfortable performance review, the decision should be easy. Likewise, if all you stand to gain is few “likes” on your blog site if you succeed and you could lose your job if you fail. It should’t take a rocket scientist to make either decision.

Jeff Ribeira

Calculated risk was my thought exactly. I think in general, it is in most people’s nature to be risk-adverse. But as we learn from most successful people in this world (career or otherwise), a willingness to take risks is often where the successful and the average diverge. Yeah, you might make the wrong choice here and there, but at least you tried and didn’t miss your opportunity altogether through over-thinking or being “paralyzed by analysis” as Peter said. Even having that willingness, I believe, puts you in a different category than a lot of other people.

Jay Johnson

From Through the Looking Glass:

“Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else — if you run very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”

“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

In a changing world, staying put will almost certainly result in obsolence. To demand proof of ROI before a proposed change puts the change on the defensive when it probably should be the other way around. Fail early and often while the price is low, and you won’t be lamenting how everyone else has passed you by.

Nicholas Charney

Paralysis by Analysis is a huge problem IMO. Also sometimes making the wrong decision quickly is cheaper and more effective than making the right decision slowly…


I saw a good article recently that listed the key characteristics of a “Good Leader”. The author thinks the key ingredient is “courage”. I strongly agree. You look at some of the important current endeavors like Change Management and Innovation (which are necessary for government reform) and you will find that good leadership plays a BIG role. You need to have courage to manage risk (assess and control risk, sensibly). It takes very little courage to sit and accept the “status quo”. It takes BIG “….” to stand up and challenge the norm. Good leaders drive positive reform, Courage is an essential ingredient.

Unfortunately, like common sense, courage is also not as common as we would like!

My advice; “Stand up and be countered.” There is no time like the present. Start a revolution!

Andrew Krzmarzick

Let’s go with taking out Osama Bin Laden as an operation that carried a fair amount of risk.

They had studied for months, verified the target, agonized over sending troops in harm’s way…then took the risk of sending in a small team to eliminate the target supported by a much larger cast.

The highest levels of leadership were bought in and watched as the operation was executed.

Mission accomplished.

There were a million things that could go wrong and a few did.

But it was definitely a calculated risk — the kind where government achieves it best results.