Want to mitigate risk? Tell a disastrous story
'Risk is a story that we tell ourselves about the future.'
👋 Welcome to The Navigator. A newsletter about people, psychology and design for business leaders who want to make meaningful change. I’m Sarah Ronald, and I write this newsletter with the Nile team. If this email was forwarded to you, you can subscribe here to receive it in your inbox every couple of weeks. And if this newsletter helps you navigate change, do press that little heart button to let me know.
In the 12th century, a band of Genoese merchants invented the idea of risk.
Medieval European law forbade the payment of interest on loans, but in 1156, enterprising captains in the Medietarran shipping industry found a loophole. They drew up contracts between venture capitalists and themselves and used the Latin word “resicum” to describe the bonus paid out to the investors if the voyage arrived safely.
As Karla Mallette, professor of Italian and Mediterranean Studies, put it in her essay about the origins of the word, “Risk is a story that we tell ourselves about the future.”
That’s exactly what Principal Designerexplores in this issue of The Navigator: how to harness the dual powers of psychology and storytelling to mitigate risks. Jonty’s guest post is a story about how being an anxious overthinker led to a new risk management approach on our most complex projects – and how he lived to tell the tale.
In this issue:
Nile acquires Dig Inclusion 🥳
Risk management is broken
Making sense of ChatGPT
Stewart Report on women in entrepreneurship
My best wishes as you navigate your week,
Risk management is broken.
Oh hello.here 👋.
Picture the scene. You’re running a complex programme. You create a spreadsheet of risks, tabulating all the possible threats and mitigations.
You meticulously colour-code your risks with clever conditional formats based on likelihood and impact. You socialise it with your steering group. You circulate it around the project team. Everyone nods sagely and agrees to ‘monitor’ the risks and ‘circle back’ with new information.
And then nobody looks at it ever again.
Unless you work in civil engineering, this is probably a familiar story. And the weird thing about this is: humans are natural-born risk managers.
So why is corporate risk management so hard?
I’m a pretty anxious person. Ask anyone at Nile, and they’ll tell you.
Anxiety makes me incredibly good at spotting risks and theorising all the ways they could harm my programme. It also has obvious drawbacks.
Being a good risk identifier doesn’t make me a good risk manager. Often, the opposite. No matter how well I colour-coded that big spreadsheet of risks, I was still getting caught out, blindsided by risks that seemed obvious.
I wanted to find a better way. And as with most good ideas, inspiration came from a different discipline entirely.
Stories are the stickiest ways to pass on information.
Our brains are hardwired for storytelling.
“Narrative psychology” is the way we piece together the parts of our lives in order to make sense of what’s happened to us and, in turn, build our sense of self. As Julie Beck writes:
A life story doesn’t just say what happened, it says why it was important, what it means for who the person is, for who they’ll become, and for what happens next.
If we make sense of our life through personal stories, I wanted to see whether we could proactively apply a similar approach to an upcoming project. I wanted to harness the stories from past projects to make sense of the risks in an upcoming piece of work.
My theory was that if I could simulate risks and inspire action through a memorable story, we might be able to spot and mitigate risks – without the need for a spreadsheet.
I brought the client team together to share real examples of projects gone wrong.
We shared tales of catastrophic failure – all the ways we've seen things go belly up, fall apart, or slowly degrade over time. It was cathartic.
In swapping our war stories, we were building up a shared bank of failure. As the author and journalist, Corey Doctorow, notes in his blog about graceful failure:
It's hard to learn about failure without experiencing it, so those of us who have lived through failures have a duty to help the people understand calamities without having to live through them themselves.
After capturing all the failure stories from the team, we went on to write our own disaster story for the project.
We wrote about our product falling down at the design to development handover stage. It told a story about our design team failing to bring the development team along on the design journey, so when it came to the handover, confusion and concern stalled the project.
Failed handovers often come from a lack of contact. Everyone’s so busy, we all forget to talk to each other.
The absence of something is hard to notice in the noise and mess of a busy programme.
Fast-forward eight weeks. We’re approaching a key delivery milestone, and a stakeholder makes a throwaway observation that they’re not hearing from the development team.
This sparks a kind of collective team flashback. Our brains were recognising a pattern, and simultaneously asking 'this feels familiar - why does this feel familiar?'
We realise what’s happening. We course-correct. We bring development back into the loop and deliver that rare thing in digital delivery: a seamless design/development handover.
Don’t leave risk management to a spreadsheet
Pattern recognition is a cognitive skill that most people don’t know they need or realise that they already have. Those project war stories get stuck in your brain, and then your brain can’t help but make connections to events happening in real-time.
Work with your team to tell the scariest, most realistic disaster story you can imagine about your project. And then develop approaches to prevent that disaster from happening. It’ll help you respond to risks earlier, faster, and more effectively, because - as far as your brain is concerned - it’s seen it all before.
Harness your anxiety. Just don’t do it in a spreadsheet.
Welcome, Dig Inclusion!
I’m so thrilled to welcome Dig Inclusion into Nile. You can read the official news about the acquisition here and here but I wanted to express how proud and excited I am to have Dig in the Nile ecosystem. As a pioneering digital media inclusivity company, their commitment to making digital services accessible for all is in perfect alignment with our drive to put inclusivity at the heart of everything we do.
Launching the Stewart Report
The data doesn't lie. Only 1 in 5 businesses in Scotland is female-led, and that hasn't changed in the last ten years. Female-founded start-ups only receive 2% of overall investment capital, which also hasn't changed in the last 5 years, despite lots of hype to the contrary.
That’s according to the findings of an independent report co-authored by Ana Stewart and Mark Logan, the Scottish Government’s Chief Entrepreneur Adviser. Kate Forbes MSP commissioned the review to identify ways to unlock untapped potential which can positively contribute to our economy.
The 31 recommendations aim to tackle root causes contributing to the low numbers of female participation across our entrepreneurial economy.
After contributing to the review, I was at the launch on Monday night; Ana (pictured) has done an outstanding job of not only highlighting the severity of the issue but detailing the actionable steps needed to course correct. And crucially, the First Minister is confident this will remain a key priority for the Government regardless of upcoming leadership changes.
🔮 Signals We’re Watching: ChatGPT
At Nile, we approach new tech developments with a healthy dose of scepticism. We want to avoid assumptions and biases. One signal we're all watching closely of course is ChatGPT because there’s so much noise around it.
If you’re trying to make sense of ChatGPT and where it goes next, here are three strategies that may help you:
Balance out the optimism with proper consideration of how things could go wrong (what’s the disaster story to be written here?)
Think about the potential less obvious consequences of ChatGPT, like the need for retraining or regulatory safeguards
Remember that the true impact of ChatGPT will take time to fully emerge. Stay focused on long-term potential rather than short-term hype.
With these steers in mind, we can get better insights about what ChatGPT could mean for us in both the short and longer term.
The Navigators’ Notes
In a previous issue of The Navigator, Dr Alexa Haynes explored System 3 thinking and what it could mean for “anti-anxiety design”. Here’s what a few Navigators had to say about it:
This is very good information and a perspective we’ve started developing within our own marketing understanding and marketing strategy development- early stages though - this post gives us a nudge in the right direction. – David Noble
This is interesting, especially aligned with a tool like Plutschik's emotion wheel to capture different, sometimes contradictory, feelings during a non-trivial interaction. – Graham Hill
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