Embracing Risk for Improved Business Performance

Barings Bank rogue trader (1995), LTCM hedge fund failure (1998), Enron bankruptcy (2001), Parmalat accounting fraud (2003), AIG accounting scandal (2005), Lehman Brothers bankruptcy(2008), Bennie Madoff ponzi scheme (2008), Toyota unintended acceleration recalls (2009) , BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill (2010), Fukushima tsunami and nuclear accident (2011), Libor-fixing scandal (2012), JP Morgan $14.6 billion regulatory fines (2013), Rana Plaza collapse (2013) and General Motors recalls (2014) are a few examples of risk management failures we have witnessed over the years.

Although the number of risks affecting the business and list of risk management failures continue to grow year-on- year, organizations are not doing enough to reduce exposure to negative events. This fact has also been highlighted in a recent 2015 Report on the Current Sate of Enterprise Risk Oversight: Update on Trends and Opportunities published by the ERM Initiative at North Carolina State University. Of the surveyed respondents, only 25 percent have mature enterprise-wide risk management process in place, 30 percent have only a partial process, addressing some but not all risk areas and 45 percent have no enterprise-wide risk management process in place. These findings are worrying, especially in today’s volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous business environment.

Management of risk is a fundamental and essential element in decision-making at all levels across the organization. Organizations need to rethink the way they look at risk. Instead of only looking at the downside of risks, there is also need to look at the upside of risks. This means moving beyond financial controls and regulatory compliance and spending time assessing, managing and monitoring operational and strategic risks for improved business performance. Risk management is not only about protecting the business but also about enabling business performance. Risk management must therefore be integrated with organization’s performance management activities. There is a positive correlation between financial performance, risk management and performance management. For example, a study by EY found out that companies with more mature risk management practices integrated with strategic planning processes outperform their peers financially.

Implemented properly, enterprise risk management (ERM) helps organizations create value and reduce costs. Today’s volatile economic environment is not making it easy for CFOs. They are being challenged by the board to do more with less, help the business survive and achieve targets. Faced with this challenge, the CFO has no other option but to find cost efficiencies. By implementing robust risk management practices, CFOs will be able to improve the organization’s cost structure. For example, ERM helps management to assess, manage and monitor enterprise risks holistically. Such an approach in turn helps reduce costs by eliminating duplicate risk activities and the savings gained from risk management activities can be used to fund strategic corporate initiatives and create value.

In order to embrace risk for better business performance, organizations must:

  1. Strengthen the Organization’s Risk Governance and Oversight

Enhancing risk strategy enables organizations to more effectively anticipate and manage risks proactively. In order to enhance the organization’s risk strategy, the board or the management committee must strengthen its risk governance and oversight and increase transparency and communication with stakeholders. Developing a risk governance structure includes establishing the organization’s risk appetite, defining the risk universe, determining how the business would measure risk and establishing enabling technology to help manage risk. If the board or management committee is unable to clearly define risk management objectives, this will automatically make it difficult to adopt and implement a common risk framework across the organization. Risk must be aligned to strategy. This helps identify and understand the risks that matter, invest in the risks that are mission-critical to the organization and effectively assess risks across the business and drive accountability and ownership.

  1. Make Risk Management an Everyday Part of the Business

To successfully achieve strategic and operational objectives, organizations must embed risk management practices into their business planning and performance management processes. Current information about risk issues must be included into the organization’s business planning and strategic planning cycles. By linking risk to the business planning and strategic planning cycle, the organization is able to prioritize and link the key risks to its operations and performance indicators.

  • Do you understand how the different parts of your organization fit together and the risks inherent? Risk is everywhere within the organization. You must be able to identify the connection between business, technology, processes, people and risk strategies and coordinate all the risk functions.
  • Is there a formal method of defining acceptable risk limits within the organization? Stress tests must be used to validate risk tolerances
  • How committed to embedding risk management is the organization’s leadership team? Leadership must drive the adoption of the risk management program across the organization and ensure it is effective.

Unfortunately in some organizations risk conversations are done once in a while. Risk is not embedded as part of the organization’s DNA. This must change if the organization is to become agile and respond effectively and efficiently to materialized risks.

  1. Coordinate Risk Activities Across All Risk Functions

Organizations go through various changes during their lifecycle. Some grow and diminish at an alarming rate and others remain stagnant for considerable periods. During the growth phase, various activities (risk, control and compliance) often become fragmented, siloed, independent and misaligned. The result is a negative impact on both the governance oversight and the business itself. Very often, because of this lack of coordination, costs spiral out of control and there is duplication and overlap of risk activities. When this happens, management must act promptly and address these problems to reduce risk burden, lower total costs, expand coverage and drive efficiency.

  • Monitoring and control functions must be aligned to the risks that are mission-critical to the organization.
  • Risk technology must be integrated to create visibility to risk management activities across the organization and eliminate or prevent redundancy.
  • Individuals must receive risk-related training in order to enhance their skills and promote efficiency. You need to continuously evaluate the skills gap in your organization and invest in skills development.
  • Risk consistent monitoring and reporting methods and practices must be applied across the organization to ensure all the risk functions are speaking the same language.
  1. Improve Financial Controls and Processes

Management must build optimal controls and processes that that balance cost with risk. These controls must be optimized to improve effectiveness, reduce costs and support increased business performance. If the environment is over-controlled (costs of control are too high) this hinders finance’s ability to effectively respond to changes in the competitive landscape. In this case, a review of current controls is necessary. This helps highlight duplicate and ineffective legacy controls. Investing in technology is also assisting organizations minimize the use of manual detect controls, automate controls and drive a more efficient, effective and paperless controls environment.

  1. Change the Organization’s Risk Culture

Effective risk management requires the right tone from the top. If there is no commitment or drive from the executives to create a risk aware culture, the program is bound to fail. A risk champion is required to change the way people view risks – from business protection to business support. The chosen individual must have great people and influential skills to ensure successful buy-in. During the change process, a decision might arise to invest in new technology for maximum benefits. Care must be taken that the change process or risk initiative is not technology-driven. The chosen technology must act as an enabler of change and the IT strategy must be aligned with the broader risk and business strategies.

It is critical that executives operating in today’s volatile economic environment periodically evaluate existing risk investments, move beyond compliance and focus more on strategic issues that will increase or decrease the value and performance of the business.

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Leading in Uncertain Times

One of the biggest challenges facing business leaders today is making the right decisions that will ensure their organizations succeed, survive, and remain competitive in an increasingly uncertain and complex environment.

A recent post, The best way to lead in uncertain times may be to throw out the playbook, by Strategy+Business has several good points.

The article is about the COVID-19 pandemic, how global companies navigated through the crisis, and how best to prepare for future disruptions. Here are some key points and my comments.

  • Rather than follow a rigid blueprint, executives must help organizations focus on sensing and responding to unpredictable market conditions.
    • Comment: Senior leaders play a vital role in providing clarity about the organization’s strategic direction, creating alignment on key priorities to ensure the achievement of enterprise objectives, and ensuring the business model is continuously evolving to create and capture value in the face of uncertainty. They must not rest on their laurels and stick to the beliefs and paradigms that got them to where they are today and hope they will carry them through tomorrow. Regulatory changes, new products, competition, markets, technologies, and shifts in customer behavior are upending many outdated assumptions about business success. Thus, the businesses you have today are different from the ones you will need in the future hence the importance of continuously sensing changes in the global economy. Employees and teams often feed off the energy of their leaders and tend to focus their attention where the leader focuses attention. If the leader is comfortable with current business practices and rarely embraces the future or challenges the status quo, then the team is highly likely to follow suit.
  • When it became clear that supply chains and other operations would fracture, organizations began scenario planning to shift production sources, relocate employees, and secure key supplies.
    • Comment: Instead of using scenario planning to anticipate the future and prepare for different outcomes, it seems most of the surveyed organizations used scenario planning as a reactionary tool. Don’t wait for a crisis or a shift in the market to start thinking about the future. The world is always changing. As I wrote in The Resilient Organization, acknowledge that the future is a range of possible outcomes, learn and develop capabilities to map out multiple future scenarios, develop an optimal strategy for each of those scenarios, then continually test the effectiveness of these strategies. This does not necessarily mean that every change in the market will impact your business. Identify early warnings of what might be important and pay closer attention to those signals. In other words, learn to separate the signals from the noise.
  • The pandemic forced the organization’s senior management team to re-examine how all decisions were made.
    • Comment: Bureaucracy has for a very long time stood in the way of innovation and agility. To remain innovative and adapt quickly in a fast-changing world, the organization must have nimble leadership and an empowered workforce where employees at all levels can dream up new ideas and bring them to life. Identifying and acting on emerging threats and potential opportunities is not the job of the leader alone but every team member. To quote Rita McGrath, in her book Seeing Around Corners, she writes, “Being able to detect weak signals that things are changing requires more eyes and ears throughout the organization. The critical information that informs decision-making is often locked in individual brains.” In addition to the internal environment, the leader must also connect with the external environment (customers, competitors, regulators, and other stakeholders), looking for what is changing and how.
  • It’s worthwhile for leaders of any team to absorb the lessons of sense-respond-adapt, even if there is no emergency at hand.
  • Sensing: Treat the far-flung parts of your enterprise as listening stations. The question leaders must ask is, “What are we learning from our interactions beyond the usual information about costs and sales?” Train your people to listen for potentially significant anomalies and ensure that important information is not trapped in organizational silos.
    • Comment: Cost and sales data are lagging indicators that reveal the consequences or outcomes of past activities and decisions. Although this information can help leaders spot trends by looking at patterns over time, it doesn’t help understand the future and inform what needs to be done for the numbers to tell a different story. In addition to lagging indicators, pay attention to current and leading indicators and understand the relationship between these indicators and outcomes.
  • Responding: Improve communication across intra- and inter-organizational boundaries. Leaders should view business continuity as an essential function that acts as connective tissue for the enterprise.
    • Comment: In addition to creating mechanisms that allow the free flow of information both inside and outside the organization, decision-makers should also be comfortable receiving information that challenges their personal view of the world, even if it’s not what they want to hear. Create a culture of psychological safety where people are not afraid to share bad news for fear of getting punished, but rather are acknowledged and rewarded for speaking up. Leveraging the diversity of thought enables leaders to anticipate the future as an organization, decide what to do about it collectively, and then mobilize the organization to do what’s necessary.
  • Adapting: Challenge assumptions, and question orthodoxies. There’s always the temptation to mitigate threats simply by applying existing practices harder and faster. One way to get at those deeper issues and encourage double-loop learning is to ask, “What needs to be true for this to be the right approach?”
    • Comment: In an increasingly uncertain environment, it’s difficult to survive and thrive with an old business model or outdated technologies. Many businesses fail because they continue doing the same thing for too long, and they don’t respond quickly enough and effectively when conditions change. As a leader, stay curious and connected to the external environment, look for market shifts, understand what needs to be regularly refreshed and reimagined, adopt new technologies and capabilities, and adapt in ordinary times but also during times of transition. Unfortunately for many leaders, it’s just more convenient for them to continually downplay the fact that conditions are changing than take the appropriate course of action that drives business success.

How are you preparing your organization for potential future disruptions?

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The Collaborative Organization

These days the term collaboration has become synonymous with organizational culture, creativity, innovation, increased productivity, and success.

Let’s look at the COVID-19 pandemic as an example. At the peak of the crisis, several companies instructed their workers to adopt remote working as a health and safety precautionary measure.

Two years into the pandemic, they are now asking their employees back to the office full time or are planning to adopt a hybrid model.

The need to preserve our collaborative culture and accelerate innovation are two of the top benefits being cited by organizational and team leaders for bringing workers back.

Collaboration is indeed essential for the achievement of team goals, functional objectives, and the overall success of the organization.

Today’s breakthrough innovations are emerging from many interacting teams and collaborative relationships.

When teams, functions, and organizations collaborate, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; group genius emerges, and creativity unfolds.

But, what makes a successful collaboration? What are the key enabling conditions?

  • It extends beyond the boundaries of the organization. Business success is a function of internal and external relationships. Instead of viewing your business in vacuo, understand that you are part of an ecosystem. External to your organization, who do you need to partner with to enhance your value creation processes, achieve/exceed your objectives, or successfully execute your strategy?
  • Ensure the objectives are clear and there is shared understanding by everyone. Unclear objectives are one of the topmost barriers to team and organizational performance.
  • Foster a culture that encourages opinions and ideas that challenge the consensus. People should feel free to share their ideas and not hold back for fear of others penalizing them or thinking less of them. Collaboration is hindered when one or two people dominate the discussion, are arrogant, or don’t think they can learn anything from others.
  • Groups perform more effective under certain circumstances, and less effective under others. There is a tendency to fixate on certain topics of discussion amongst groups which often leaves members distracted from their ideas. To reduce the negative effects of topic fixation, members of the group should be given periods to work alone and switch constantly between individual activity and group interaction.
  • Effective collaboration can happen if the people involved come from diverse backgrounds and possess complementary skills to prevent conformity. The best collective decisions or creative ideas are often a product of different bodies of knowledge, multiple opinions, disagreement, and divergent thought processes, not consensus or compromise.
  • New technologies are making collaboration easier than ever, enabling us to increase our reach and broaden our network. Although new technology helps, it will not make your organization collaborative without the right culture and values in place. First, define what you want to achieve through collaboration then use these tools to promote creative collaboration.

How else are you championing collaboration within your organization to create value and succeed?

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Preparing for Geopolitical Shocks

Geopolitical instability has steadily increased over the past years, and uncertainty in the global economy is at an all-time high. Thanks to globalization and advances in technologies, we now live and work in a tightly interconnected world, one in which the boundaries that previously separated domestic from global issues have disappeared.

Threats are no longer confined to traditional political borders, social structures, and geographic boundaries. Geopolitical shifts have dramatically altered the global economic landscape and brought politics and business together.

The rise of China as an economic and politically influential power has threatened the dominance of the United States as the world’s largest economy. Although the opening of China and a market of 1.4 billion people have benefited both countries, it has also intensified competition and sparked U.S. economic and technological espionage accusations against China, leading to strained relations between the two giants.

U.S. companies operating from China have felt the impact of this tense relationship. The opposite is true for Chinese companies in the U.S.

Across Europe, national populism is on the rise and now a serious force. In 2016, the United Kingdom shocked the world when it voted to leave the European Union, generating reverberating effects across markets.

Banks and financial services companies that once benefited from the EU passporting system have had their cross-border banking and investment services to customers and counterparties in the many EU Member States impacted, causing them to reimagine their value proposition models.

The recent invasion of Ukraine by Russia is another example of a geopolitical event that has had devastating effects on human livelihood and businesses. Although the conflict between the two countries has risen over the years, I think it’s fair to say that few political analysts, governments, and businesses predicted a war to happen.

The war has created a humanitarian crisis, rattled global commodity and energy markets, caused prices to soar, and forced many international companies to temporarily suspend their Russian activities or completely cut ties with the country.

Global supply chains which are already fragile and sensitive due to the COVID-19 pandemic are now facing new challenges in the aftermath of the Russia-Ukraine crisis. Multilateral economic sanctions have been imposed on Russia. A state of affairs that was unthinkable months ago and is now threatening to derail the nascent global economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Given the global domino effect of geopolitical events and the shrinking of the distance between markets and politics, the need to better understand and more effectively mitigate geopolitical risk has become more urgent. The business impacts, whether direct or indirect, vary by company type and industry sector.

Your company may not be able to prevent wars between nations, but you can anticipate and better prepare for geopolitical shocks:

  • Integrate strategy, risk, and performance decision-making. Consideration of risks to business success is an important part of the strategy selection and execution process, not an afterthought.
  • Develop a better understanding of geopolitical trends and how they are changing. For example, what are the megatrends in business, politics, and technology that are making geopolitical risks more diverse, prevalent, and consequential?
  • Assess the links between these geopolitical events and business performance. What are the events that matter most to your business? For example, how might current global political trends pose physical, business, and reputational risks to your parent organization?
  • Anticipate how these trends are likely to play out in the short, medium, and long terms, and develop mitigation strategies for each geopolitical scenario. Proactively anticipate and plan for radically different worlds, instead of reacting to problems as they arise
  • Review your mitigation strategies as the world changes. Are they effective enough in case of a major shock?
  • Develop capabilities for continuous learning to anticipate, address, and recover from geopolitical crises.

What do you think?

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