How risk framing, climate and leadership are linked

This past week there was a piece of news that has caught many people’s imagination: the slowing down of Atlantic Ocean circulation. The Atlantic Ocean circulation is a stream that brings warmer water towards north and is the reason why Western Europe can enjoy warm weather during summer.

But a new study has found that this current has been slowed down to a record low.Scientists are linking this event to climate change and how our actions are actually impacting the oceans in such significant terms that we have not seen before.

The fear of this stream slowing down is not new. It captured the imagination already in The Day After Tomorrow movie where most of the northern US is covered in ice and snow due to the failing of this stream.

Similarly, this week we have heard about the fires in Canada and how these fires are increasing the risks and also costs of fire management and losses and damages . Increases in such fires are likely in the future due to climate change.

In this equation we don’t even know how to measure the long-term detrimental damages to ecosystems themselves as most of the calculations that we do are those of financial assets, such as houses, roads, other infrastructure that we can put a dollar value on.

Despite these news, many are likely to brush off these as freak events or that there is just not enough data or that the uncertainties are too high to count as definitive evidence.

The very reason why such comments often surface have to do with the way individuals and organisations frame risks, and how these choices further push additional actions or allow inaction.

Risk typologies as an illustration

In a paper “When is transformation a viable policy alternative?” that I wrote few years back with Professor John Handmer we explicitly focused on risk management but more broadly in answering the question: once we settle on a particular framing of a risk, which factors come into play in making a decision how to deal with it?

We wanted to explore and expand on a risk typology that looks at the very definition of a risk or a problem, and the extent that these framings then impact also on what kind of information we seek, where we get that information from, how we estimate uncertainty, and a variety of other factors that have a significant impact on the decision that we take how to solve that particular problem.

These kinds of issues are particularly relevant for emergency and disaster management organisations but have also wider applications.

In our typology we looked at three different kinds of risk framings: routine problems, non-routine problems, and complex problems, and the extent that each of these framings is capable to accommodate change.

Routine problems (Type I) are about resistance and maintenance: the focus is on keeping the system functioning as it is. We are fairly confident with these types of problems that we understand the extent of uncertainty and can make quick decisions on how to deal with these problems. The current operational procedures are enough and no major changes are required or undertaken.

Non-routine problems (Type II) are still within the realm of our experience although these types of problems can stretch the knowledge that we have. Non-routine problems, such as extreme heatwaves, often necessitate new kinds of approaches to deal with “freak events” but often do little to actually necessitate change in operational and strategic plans and management.

Yet, most of the problems that our societies and organisations face today are what we call Type III: complex unbounded problems. Such problems are “often outside of previous experience, have high uncertainties, involve multiple scales, and have high levels of unpredictability”.

With such problems, we know that we do not understand the extent of the uncertainty, we need to access and draw on as many knowledge sources as possible, and we need to implement transformative changes in the way we are thinking and operating currently. Type III risk frame allows organisations to acknowledge what they don’t know and enables deeper reflection as to what needs to change.

Links to leadership?

Much of this research really demonstrates that there are multiple ways of seeing a problem, which in turn impacts on our willingness and ability to foster innovation and find new ways of doing things.

Our typology, although firstly written with a focus on emergency and disaster management organisations, applies very much to leadership and management more broadly.

Think about your own team and the time that you had disagreements about the problem: which risk framing or problem type did you and your team members subscribe to?

Did your staff or people higher up clearly have a different view of the extent and nature of the problem?

How did this influence in how you as a leader or manager sought out advice or information, and how did you make a decision how to deal with the uncertainties?

In the workplace, it is possible to have all of these risk types represented in discussions.

Two people holding opposing views about what the problem even is are unlikely to agree on the same solution.

The common rule of thumb is that until you have a shared understanding or agreement what the problem is (routine vs. nonroutine vs. complex) it is very difficult to also start changing some of the management practices that are in place.

But understanding the different framings and having an open dialogue about what each sees as the problem can lead also to a more broadly accepted and shared definition of the problem at hand, and hence impacts also on the kinds of solutions that are considered.

This is is my hope regarding climate change: that we start recognising it as a complex unbounded problem, which demands significant changes in the way we operate our institutions and write our policies.

2 thoughts on “How risk framing, climate and leadership are linked”

    1. Thanks Thom, that is so true! I think what we often find that also different disciplines e.g. engineering, social science, also play a role in promoting particular risk frames. Your comment made me also think about how organisations have also different levels of decision-making, which all might or might not share the same frame.

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