Risk Realities Vs. Perspectives

As a change agent, one of the things I am often involved with is increasing the visibility and understanding of differing perspectives.

Often, when a process or organizational change has been "announced," the majority of people who will be involved, or impacted, have not had a chance to voice their opinions. They were not asked whether they thought the situation was an issue needing change, whether that change would impact their world, or how that might be addressed, if so.

Often, when there is a need for change, there will be a difference of opinions on how the situation should change, even if agreement can be made on what the end results should deliver.

On the flip side, if everyone was asked their opinion, it could be extremely difficult to decide upon the need for, or the right choice for, a change... especially when there are too many differing opinions with no guiding framework.

In this article, I'd like to highlight a primary challenge aligning with the last scenario - that is, with respect to numerous and various perspectives. I will use the example of views on risks and opportunities - and with how that needs to be addressed.

Personal Perceptions

Risk, or rather the reflection of the severity of risk associated with something, is a personal matter. This perception can be impacted by several things:

  • personal psychological preferences,
  • emotions,
  • responsibilities,
  • experiences,
  • knowledge, and
  • influences.

To explore a situation and understand how we view various scenarios, we need to ask ourselves, and others involved what might be influencing those views: 

  • Are you naturally a risk taker? Do you fear anything at all?
  • Do certain things make you want to run and hide?
  • How close is this issue to you? How might you be impacted personally?
  • Have you ever had to be responsible for anyone or anything other than yourself? How far-reaching have those responsibilities been?
  • Has anything ever happened to you, or someone you care about, to now make you just a little more careful with your decisions or actions?
  • With respect to that thing to which the risk might be associated, how much do you know about it? Is what you know hear-say? Do you understand the whole picture, or just one aspect? Or have you studied the facts thoroughly, and know the situation well?
  • Who else might be influencing how you view the situation?

As a result of all these things, there may be people at completely opposite ends of the spectrum on their views about the risks associated with any particular thing.

Inviting & Understanding Stakeholder Views

In situations where there may be significant differences in perceived risks, and particularly when we are dealing with a number of stakeholders, we really need to take the time to understand one another's views. And we need to do this before moving to exploring potential solutions.

We also need to be careful when we are informing about various challenges or projects, to start with the facts, and not inject personal opinions or influences. We want also to be sure to invite open and honest input to the following dialogue - not inadvertently shut peoples' thoughts off by saying the wrong things... we can all learn from others, after all!

I'll use a recent example that made me think twice about my own use of language and the influence that might have had on the dialogue at hand. (Because I do like to be a bit challenging in order to open minds - with the flip side that after I do so, I also like to inquire and listen to understand others' perspectives.)

An Example

I was involved in a dialogue with some mining professionals around tailings and waste management following a recent presentation. I had raised some potential risks, alongside opportunities for doing things differently within this realm. And at one point, I had used the term "problem" in relation to tailings. In the moment of said dialogue, I hadn't clarified that I meant problems associated with the potential environmental impacts of poor management or containment of tailings.

One of the people in attendance spoke up to suggest that tailings weren't a problem, that we know how to manage them, and we do quite effectively. They questioned whether a change was actually necessary, particularly en masse.

Knowing what I do about the mining industry, and the responsible practices we have around tailings management - the practices that are promoted by industry and upheld by the majority - I had to acknowledge and agree with this perspective. Because I know that we generally do everything that we can to contain and manage tailings safely and responsibly.

However, going back to the point of this article - there are many perspectives to consider. Neither my own, nor his, are the only perspectives that need to be considered.

Another person in the meeting spoke up to indicate that not all people view mine waste materials as waste - many Indigenous people often view everything on this earth as having value. Generalizing at this point, and noting that whether anyone views waste as a potential source of revenue, or simply a valued part of the landscape in nature is another question, and again would come down to personal opinions.

Yet another view included that the materials themselves may not be a problem or risk - but the way in which they are stored, may be. And so the dialogue carried on - highlighting positives and negatives within this realm.

Moving Forward

From the very brief example introduced here, one can clearly see the need for inclusive dialogue, whenever we are dealing with a major issue with potential to impact a number of others. Whether this is a proposed development, a new process, or a change in an organization.

It is critical to have opportunities to open the dialogue about the proposal at hand - before determining the best plans and solutions to address them, according to your personal (or even, organizational) views.

What is a risk? What is an opportunity? What are the facts? How will these be viewed by others? Can we see eye to eye?

If we allow work to proceed based only on our own perspectives, we may never realize a need for, nor work towards, a change that might be more beneficial to all involved. Opening the dialogue helps us to understand each other, to understand what actual challenges or issues need to be addressed, and leads us to better solutions too.

What are your views?

Side note: With respect to the opportunity side of things in the realm of tailings management, we had been discussing other options of creating value from wastes, in viewing them as resources and looking for ways to realize said value - by managing them differently. The presentation actually highlighted several ways we might consider to do this, introduced by a number of different organizations and solution providers (reflecting, of course, differing perspectives!)