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  • Julian Talbot

Certainty for sale ...

In this world there is nothing certain but death and taxes.

Benjamin Franklin

Certainty, or at least the illusion of it, has become a consumer product. Marketing professionals exploit our desire for certainty to generate huge profits. Who would like easy weight loss, guaranteed high returns, and employment for life? Most of us. Jobs for life are long gone, and I'd suggest that the first two are also pure marketing spin.

A desire for certainty is part of our makeup yet, despite the marketing hype, it remains as elusive as ever. Managing uncertainty (we call it risk management) isn’t the easiest thing to do. The good news is that most risk management needn't be that complicated. Researchers are providing solutions even for complex issues such as climate change, war, and pandemic. But what about our innate desire for certainty?

It is understandable; after all, danger stalks us throughout our lives. Slips, trips, falls, terrorists, snakes, and falling space debris all conspire against us. Most people would enjoy life more if fewer things were trying to kill or maim them. It can seem like there are so much more ways to fail than means to succeed. An IRA spokesperson observed about a failed attack "remember we only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always”.

Shadowed by peril as we are, you would think that we'd be pretty good by now at identifying high versus low risks. But you’d be mistaken. We agonize over pandemics and mad cow disease, which killed less than 1,000 people per year around the world. At the same time, we fill shopping carts with processed foods and tobacco. In America alone, heart disease kills 700,000 and smoking another 400,000 people every year.

In fact, even when we are safe and secure, we usually find something to worry us. Whether it's a realistic concern or not doesn't seem to matter. Have you ever noticed some people are calm in a life-threatening crisis, but others stress at the thought of a visit to the dentist? We are all very individual in this regard, and our responses vary.

After 13.799 (±0.021) billion years, despite finding ourselves at the top of the food chain, we still don't have a good understanding of risk. Evolution has programmed us in a way that causes us to fear some risks out of all proportion. Our pre-historic reptilian brain evolved for 'fight or flight' responses. A certain risk like a saber tooth tiger requires a clear response. Abstract risks like heart disease, motor accidents, and climate change are profound challenges.

Every year in the OECD, for example, motor vehicle accidents kill 390 people for every one person killed by a terrorist. Even in 2001, every 26 days the road fatalities in the US were equal to those of the September 11 attack. Or put another way, 42,000 people died on the roads that year. Prioritizing resources to prevent avoidable deaths isn't easy, but we can do better.​

Imagine you're visiting the emergency department of your local hospital. Look around you while you wait your turn for treatment. Smoking, bad diet, and sedentary lifestyles are the causes of most admissions. And you need only look around you as you walk out the door of that hospital to see how many clinical staff still smoke. They know the long-term dangers, but our fight or flight brain makes the decisions. And it only cares about immediate threats and benefits.

Think of uncertainty management as risk management. Then think of quality management, financial management, and project management. From humble beginnings, such things become part of management theory. And then part of daily life. These management ideas, might not get much attention but they impact us daily, in ways we don't notice. Our challenge is to keep applying and expanding our menu of techniques, and ideas to manage uncertainty. Especially, to learn to cope with uncertainty. It isn't going away, no matter what the advertising promises might tell us.



Despite the title of this article, you'll find no certainty for sale here. As a proportion of all there is to know about risk management, the author of this article knows less than he ever did. It is evident that life is uncertain, and risk management has uncertain outcomes. That's about all I can say for sure. The desire for certainty can even make things worse. The movie 'The Butterfly Effect' illustrates the idea rather well. Unintended consequences lurk, providing much material for coronial inquiries and future articles. Unintended consequences of writing books and articles for me include less time with family or on my motorcycle. That absence from motorcycling may, of course, extend my lifespan but who can say. The intended consequence meanwhile, is that you find enough value here to enter your email and subscribe. Enjoy :-)

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