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Failing to keep pace with change — the biggest risk of all

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

If you compare today’s stock exchange list with the same list from 10 years ago, you’ll see some big players missing. Some collapsed. Some lost relevance. Some lost value, and were gobbled up before their market value could be regained.

The single thread in nearly all of these cases is simple — the conditions changed and the organisation failed to keep pace with that change.

When thinking about the most significant business risks facing an organisation, failing to keep pace with change is the biggest. It outstrips anything on your risk register. It is a death sentence waiting to happen. In some cases the decline will be rapid, but in many cases, without a big intervention it will be slow and painful. Other risks will hurt; they may cause embarrassment, legal recourse, short-term financial loss, or the loss of a few executives, but they probably won’t kill the organisation.

The most recent analysis from the ASX Corporate Governance Council tells us that 95% of the ASX 200 companies believe they have the systems in place for their boards and management to be across their most material business risks.

In reviewing the risk reports from of a range of organisations, we see that some of the most material business risks — the risks arising from external change — are often not explicitly stated or well understood.

In part, this is due to narrow time horizons used in framing their risk assessments. In part, this arises from being unable to distinguish weak from strong signals. In many cases, it’s an inability to think beyond business as usual.

Often, the only way to tackle a strategic risk is to take a big risk and change course. Many organisations shy away from this and, in doing so, will end up on the scrap heap.

While it is risky to change and adapt, not hedging your bets is even riskier.

Ironically, for many organisations, a conservative approach to risk in the short term is likely to be the greatest risk of all.

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Three questions you should ask:

1. What could cause our business model to be defunct or no longer viable? 

2. What weak signals do we need to be paying attention to today? 

3. What risks are apparent now which could take several years to unfold?

This article first appeared in the December 2011 edition of Risk Management Today.

Part two of this article linked below.

2012 Prophecy - The death of that great Ponzi scheme - the industrial age.