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.

Can we keep a score on climate?

Last week I attended Climate Update 2018 event in Brisbane where we heard from various eminent speakers on the state of climate and what different organisations, such as the Queensland government, are doing in this space.

In his presentation at Climate Update 2018, Mark Howden from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change focused on the latest climate science: for example 2017 was the hottest year on record.

Many of the graphs showed how we are losing ice at a rate not seen before, how the poles are melting away, how carbon emissions are tracking at upper levels, and how the numbers of natural disasters have increased in recent years.

Especially if you work in climate change space, we receive these kinds of news sometimes almost at a daily rate. But how do we keep up with this information? How do we know where we are actually at? And once we know where we are at, how do we put in strategies in place to start influencing the goals and outcomes we want?

This raises also questions such as how many times does a place need to flood until we recognise that this is the new business-as-usual? This comes down to tracking and measuring where we are at.

Measuring climate change adaptation and state of the art

In my field, climate adaptation, there are countless reports and frameworks looking into how we could track, measure and monitor our activities and whether we are making progress in adjusting to the current and predicted impacts of climate change.

One recent initiative that has aimed to advance our thinking is the recent report by UNEPDTU that focused on understanding the latest knowledge on the kinds of metrics we can use to track and measure climate adaptation, including how successful it has been.

As the report notes, there are diverse frameworks and methodologies now in use for measuring and tracking adaptation, all of which are used in a highly disorganised way. This means that there is a lack of common agreement how such measuring should be done.

To complicate matters, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s Paris Agreement  notes that there is now a global adaptation goal.

Yet, we still do not have a definition or idea what that goal could or should look like in practice, which of course influences what we are to measure.

Capturing information on mitigation (reducing greenhouse gases) uses a single measure of calculating how many tons of carbon have been released or alternatively not released. These are the yearly numbers that for example companies produce to showcase their actions for climate change and how they are going “low carbon”.

But with adaptation, we are far from agreeing on a metric partly because adaptation is often seen as a social process that is context dependent. Yet, we do need to find innovative ways of tracking and measuring that are not just dependent on big data or scientific assessments but in factors that can engage communities to do better and perform better.

Eventually, it all comes down to winning or losing.

4 Disciplines of Execution

In the leadership and management literature one of the influential books has been the 4 Disciplines of Execution by McChesney, Covey and Huling.

Why influential? Because it provides a pragmatic way for organisations to manage change, achieve their wildly important goals, and finding a way to stay focused on reaching those goals in the middle of the “whirldwind”.

The whirlwind is the everyday-life that most of us face and that permeates often our decisions and time use. The daily emails, responding to urgent requests; it is a space that we occupy to do the work we do. If you find yourself asking “where did this day go?”, you are likely to have been in the whirlwind.

The good news is that there is a different way of thinking that can help in getting focused on achieving your goals. This comes down to these 4 disciplines:

  1. Focus on your wildly important goal. Be clear about the goal and narrow it down so that you know what you need to do to reach it.
  2. Act on lead measures. Which actions do you need to take to reach the goal? Which factors can you influence?
  3. Keep a compelling scoreboard that lets you know how you are progressing.
  4. Create a cadence of accountability.

The accountability is important because

“Great performers thrive in a culture of accountability that is frequent, positive, and self-directed. Each team engages in a simple weekly process that highlights successes, analyzes failures, and course-corrects as necessary, creating the ultimate performance-management system”.

What the authors have found is that especially keeping a scoreboard has fuelled organisational change. The idea behind a scoreboard is to increase engagement but also giving people a sense of whether they are winning or losing, and if so what measures they can take to influence the outcome:

“Great teams know at every moment whether or not they are winning. They must know, otherwise, they don’t know what they have to do to win the game. A compelling scoreboard tells the team where they are and where they should be, information essential to team problem solving and decision making”. (p. 66).

Much of this will come down to engagement and the ways that we are able to show people what the current situation is, where we are heading, and what measures we can take to either advert the undesirable outcome or support the accomplishment of the goal.

Creating a Scoreboard for Engagement

Reading this book has led me to ask questions around how we could use such an approach in climate change adaptation. We certainly gain glimpses of where we are at with climate change by looking at all the biophysical data, such as the rate of melting icesheets or the record number of hot days each year (higher than usual).

We have the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change but these come out every 5 or 6 years, which is a long-time to wait for the state of the art knowledge on climate change.

This kind of data we do have but what kind of data would lend itself to create a Climate Scoreboard? For climate adaptation in particular, what would a global, national or local climate adaptation scoreboard look like?

Would it be number of disasters averted, number of households protected during or from flooding, number of insurance claims reduced? If the Climate Adaptation Scoreboard would be in the middle of the town, next to the bank, what information would be most compelling to give people a sense of engagement and progress?

In creating scoreboards, there are 4 essentials that are critical:

  1. Keep it simple. Show only the essentials. Make sure the scores are readily available and simple enough to get the main message across.
  2. Visibility: can people see it?
  3. Lead and lag measures: Lead measures are factors the team can influence (doing), lag measures are the result we want (what the team is getting).
  4. Winning or losing? Quickly determine what the current status or situation. This needs to follow the 5-second rule: can the team tell in 5 seconds where they are at?

In this process, the importance of data cannot be emphasised enough:

“Data is like light- the best growth agent known. When winners are given data that shows they are losing, they figure out a way to win. With the lights on, they can see what they need to do to improve” (p. 74).


The critical question then is to identify the data that we need to grasp the state of progress and then how to use that data to visualise where we are at.

The core of the book is really about engagement and innovation: when you have clear and wildly important goals, people will engage especially if they can see how their activities are moving the needle towards something worthwhile. Identifying ways how we can make and track “adaptation wins” will be crucial and am hoping in the next decades we can see true innovation in this space.