Surviving and Thriving in Uncertainty: A book review by Bob Morris

Surviving and Thriving in Uncertainty: Creating the Risk Intelligent Enterprise
Frederick Funston and Stephen Wagner
John Wilkey & Sons, Inc. (2010)

Risk unmanaged is risk exacerbated

I am among those who find a wealth of excellent advice every time I pick up my copy of The Art of War and re-read a passage or two in any of its 13 chapters. (FYI, Samuel B. Griffin translated the edition I prefer, published in a paperbound by Oxford University Press.) As I began to read Surviving and Thriving in Uncertainty, I recalled several insights that perhaps, just perhaps, Frederick Funston and Stephen Wagner may have had in mind while writing their book. Here are three: every battle is won or lost before it is fought, all warfare is based on deception, and five constant factors govern the art of war, to be assessed when determining the conditions in the field. They are The Moral Law (leaders and followers have values and goals in alignment), Heaven (physical environment: night and day, cold and heat, times and seasons), Earth (distances, strategic positions, terrain), The Commander (virtues of wisdom, sincerity, benevolence, courage, strictness), and Method and Discipline (readiness, organization of forces and resources, agility and resilience). These are the essential components of what is generally regarded as traditional, indeed “classical” strategic thinking about potential risks and how best to manage them.

I suggest you keep these components in mind as Funston and Wagner first explain why and how risks become “brutal realities,” how to survive and thrive by making correct judgments, why conventional risk management has failed, and why an unconventional approach to risk management is needed, especially “under risky, uncertain, and turbulent conditions.” For Part Two, they devised a very clever format within which to present their material: In each of Chapters 4-13, they juxtapose a “fatal flaw” in risk intelligence thinking (e.g. failing to challenge assumptions, shirt-termism, lack of operational discipline) with a skill needed to avoid or overcome that flaw. To their substantial credit, they focus almost all of their attention on the nature and potential extent of the given flaw and explain how to develop the skills needed to avoid of overcome it.

Funston and Wagner also include dozens of “Voice of Experience” mini-commentaries relevant to the given context. Other reader-friendly devices include checklists of key points (e.g. “Ten Essential Risk Intelligence Skills” and “The Rewards of Risk Intelligence”), Exhibits (e.g. organizational and performing characteristics of “Tightly vs. Loosely Coupled Organizations”), and a “Questions to Ask about [a core concept”]” section at the conclusion of Chapters 4-13.

Risk cannot be managed until it is recognized within its context, its frame-of-reference. Moreover, its implications and possible (if not probable) consequences must also be fully understood, then prepared for with meticulous care. Sun Tzu would urge today’s C-level executives to make certain that their organizations have a cohesive, comprehensive, and cost-effective program in place that addresses contingency planning, risk management, and crisis response…one that fully accommodates factors such as those previously identified. Frederick Funston and Stephen Wagner present and explain such a program in this book.


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