Tame, Messy and Wicked Risk Leadership [Book Review]

Tame, Messy and Wicked Risk LeadershipThings are always going wrong. No matter how hard we try to keep everything under control, something will always happen to mess up our hard work. Now I’ve read David Hancock’s book,Tame, Messy and Wicked Risk Leadership*, I wonder if I shouldn’t be blaming everyone else for messing up, but myself.

Hancock presents the view that actually the world is a lot more complicated than our traditional risk management models can cope with. He argues that we should be looking to the worlds of sociology, philosophy and politics to establish new ways of interacting with risk.

We need to do this because the equation risk = likelihood x consequence only works when the risk is as a result of a knowledge gap. Get more information, analyse it, and you can reduce the risk.

What to do when knowledge isn’t the problem

Sometimes all the knowledge in the world won’t help you reduce the risk. He says:

Yesterday’s response to a given set of circumstances is only a hint of what tomorrow’s response to that set of circumstances will be and, in any case, today’s circumstances will never reappear tomorrow precisely as they were today. So we really do not know what the future holds. Risk in our world is nothing more than uncertainty about the decisions that other human beings are going to make and how we can best respond to those decisions.

Much of what Hancock describes is most applicable to large, complex projects with multiple stakeholder groups, like public sector initiatives. He uses examples from transport (he was responsible for the risk management system for the Heathrow Terminal 5 Project) and space exploration to give you an idea of the scale. When you are dealing with projects this big, he says it no longer makes sense to split risk management across different functions or initiatives.

We need to address the total uncertainty facing an organisation, in any instant, and how risks correlate, before we can take responsible action.

He goes on to explain this in action by giving an explanation of the recent financial collapse – with clarity that rivals Robert Peston’s headline-grabbing approach.

Tame, Messy and Wicked

Most of the book is taken up with explaining what tame, messy and wicked problems are all about. Here’s a summary:

Tame problems: these have “simple, linear causal relationships that have clear beginning and end points.” The traditional approach to risk management works for these. You gather data, analyse the situation, formulate a mitigation plan and then implement your plan.

Messy problems: these are “problems of organised complexity, clusters or interrelated or interdependent problems, or systems of problems.” You can’t solve them in isolation. Systems thinking helps unpack these problems. One example he gives is alleviating traffic congestion. You can’t solve it by widening the motorways or increasing road tax. There are lots of issues at stake, even if we all agree that sitting in traffic jams is bad.

Tame, messy, wicked risks

What do your risks look like?

Wicked problems: these are more complicated than messy problems. We can unravel messy problems eventually “as long as most of us share an overriding social theory or overriding social ethic.” If we don’t, we end up with wicked problems. These are where the solution proposed will likely depend less on a probability model and more on your view of the world. Consequently, there is no right answer and five stakeholders will have five different approaches to managing the risk.

Risk leadership

For a book with ‘risk leadership’ in the title, the discussion about this doesn’t start until the book’s conclusion. In fact, there are only about two pages worth of explanation about risk leadership, and I felt short-changed.

Risk leadership is about putting aside traditional linear risk processes and developing relationships with stakeholders, scenario planning, helping others live with uncertainty and facilitating mitigation plans to achieve the best possible compromise, understanding that there is no right answer.

This sounds fascinating, and I wanted to read more about it. Maybe Hancock will write another volume exploring the concept of risk leadership in more depth?

This review first appeared on The Money Files at Gantthead, in May 2011.

*This article contains affiliate links at no cost to you.


  1. Penny says

    Of course you need to facilitate risk across silos and develop relationships with stakeholders and all that great risk leadership stuff. Do you also have to through out all that has been learned over the years from risk management? I feel that this would be throwing the baby out with the bath water!

    Good review Elizabeth, thank you.
    Co-author of a Short Guide to Facilitating Risk Management

      • says

        Don’t worry – we know what you mean! Throwing out all risk management practices would be foolish, as they work very well, and have done for many years. I think the concepts in this book really relate to the huge, complex projects that not many project managers get to work on. And I don’t see why they wouldn’t work in parallel to some more traditional approaches to risk management as well, along as the complexity was taken into account and the appropriate strategies adopted.

  2. Furmanjeff says

    Elizabeth, love your illustration, especially “Wicked” — scariest electronic red eyes since T2!

    • says

      Thanks, Jeff! I think “Messy” looks a bit like a pineapple, which wasn’t the effect I was going for. The drawing was done with a stylus on my iPad using Adobe Ideas.

  3. PMAnswerBook says

    Elizabeth, do you do illustrations also when you give presentations? I can see that a live audience would enjoy them also.
    If so, is there a different e-product you use for drawing on a laptop to a projector? 

    • says

      I do have a cable to connect my iPad to a projector, so I could use that for drawing, but I have never tried it. I don’t know whether Ideas would broadcast what I am doing, or if I would need another drawing app geared up for what would effectively be a video output. I’ll have to give it a go.

      If you want to draw “live” from a laptop, you could probably use any drawing package but you’d need a touch screen unless you were skilled with a mouse. And I couldn’t draw at all unless I had a stylus – this has been my most useful iPad accessory.

  4. PMAnswerBook says

    Thanks Elizabeth, well, you could always do your drawings in advance on your iPad and add them into your slide-deck, which I think would work very well for you. 

    FYI, the best book I’ve read on giving presentations is called: “Telling Ain’t Training” by Erica Keeps and Harold Stolovitch.  The book is so popular with trainers that it spawned a popular “Telling Ain’t Training Conference” here in the U.S., affiliated with ASTD (American Society of Training & Dev)

  5. Nasir Hussain says

    A good balanced review. Having looked at the contents of the book and index, precious little by way of how one goes about tackling such wicked problems – the phrase problem structuring methods doesn’t feature. Better publications exist for risk leadership and wicked problems – see Keith Grint.  A useful book for the mass public but unlikely purchase for practitioner or researchers in the field.

    • says

      Nasir, the best reference I can find for Grint’s work on wicked problems is his chapter in The New Public Leadership Challenge called ‘Wicked Problems and Clumsy Solutions: the role of Leadership’. If you have any references to further works, please let me know.

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