Target fixation in risk management. Arguments for the bright side of risk

Always look on the bright side of life

Target fixation
is the tendency to hit an obstacle because of excessive attention to it. 

The source is practical experience of fighter-bomber pilots in WW2. It is popular with racing and motorcycle schools: "always look where you want to go, not where you are going - or else the bike won’t turn"; "never look directly at the obstacle, or else you hit it" . 

It is related to tunnel vision, which is a medical condition: the loss of peripheral vision, while retaining central vision. Or, in a generalized form: diminished awareness of additional objects because of fixating on a specific target.

Target fixation and tunnel vision are relevant metaphors for cognitive biases regarding the relation between objectives, expectations, and results; e.g. the Pygmalion effect - a psychological phenomenon wherein high expectations lead to improved performance.

Risk management is a negative concept

Risk management is a key knowledge area in project management. Its terminology has negative connotations. It typically deals with negative external events. Its mathematical apparatus uses negative numbers. 

Focusing on negativity violates key empirical rules in all sort of domains. A key rule in communication is: never start a sentence with a negative word

A brief history of risk and opportunity management 

  • “Risk management” appears in scientific and management literature since the 1920s. 
  • It became a formal science in the 1950s (Dionne, 2013), when articles and books with “risk management” in the title also appear in library searches. 
  • Most of research was related to finance and insurance.
  • Opportunities first appear in academic research or management books in the 1990’s. The first Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBoK, 1987) doesn’t mention opportunities at all. 
  • Modern project management school does recognize the importance of opportunities, in theory. Opportunities have been included in project management literature since the 1990s (PMBoK, 1996) and became a significant part of project risk management in the years 2000s (Goodman, 2005), when articles titled “opportunity management” also begin to appear in library searches. 

Modern risk management theory deals with any type of external events, positive and negative. Positive risks are called opportunities. Similarly to risks, opportunities have specific mitigation strategies: exploit, share, enhance, ignore.

In practice, risks are considered “usually negative”. Risk-related research and practice focus significantly more on threats than on opportunities. 

Negative risk management is not constructive. It misses out on the important category of optimistic bright positive events. 

The lack of opportunities from risk management practice is actually fascinating. It is a widespread phenomenon. You can find practically no opportunities in any of the risk registers of any actual project. I witnessed this phenomenon throughout my career; it is also documented by research.

Other optimistic management approaches: antifragility, positive complexity

In vulnerability management, (Taleb, 2012) introduced the concept of antifragility as a new type of response. Antifragility is beyond the traditional resistance, resilience (recovery), or robustness: it is about systems improving as a result of adverse external events. It is a convex response to external stressors, leading to positive effects.

Complexity management proposes an optimistic approach in the form of the appropriate (requisite) and positive complexity (Benbya & McKelvey, 2006) (Morcov et al, 2020). The law of requisite variety (or complexity) says that organizations, or in general systems, must increase internal complexity to match (or even exceed) external complexities. Positive complexity is the one that creates beneficial results such as increased viability, innovation, or increased functionality: smarter phones or cars. 

Conclusion

Risk management is a negative process; it deals almost exclusively with negative events. This triggers cognitive biases and failure-prone behavior such as target fixation and tunnel vision. Projects and managers focus on obstacles and ignore opportunities.

Maybe it's time to make a leap of faith towards a positive optimistic approach to risk management; to finally jump to opportunity management. To start fixating on positive targets.

Or, as Monty Python would say: 

Always Look on the Bright Side of Risk.

Comments

  1. Great post! This is a great way to outline both sides of risk management.

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