Uncommon Sense

The funny thing about this risk management stuff is that everyone is supposedly doing it already. In business, from the solo practitioner or individual employee, to the department manager, to the chief executive, everyone has their internal compass as to what they should be doing or avoiding, or what specific result would constitute failure or success. Most people call this common sense.

Find XBut common sense can be surprisingly uncommon and inconsistently applied. Modern principles of risk management emphasize the importance of laying things out explicitly, in advance, taking actions that are consistent with these objectives, then monitoring progress and making adjustments over time. Sometimes the actions need to be adjusted, but sometimes the objectives do too. Even the most well thought out plan and risk management strategy will need to be changed eventually. Here is where we can easily slip off into abstract philosophical ruminations or highly technical risk management methodologies that would be virtually impossible for most business people to implement. I’m more of a pragmatist so let’s just start with the idea of questioning our assumptions, which is the bedrock of a sound risk management strategy.


Fragile or unrealistically precise assumptions are very dangerous things, and can lead well- intentioned business people astray. A simple example that I have seen repeatedly is the assumption that a new company can make a lot of money by entering a very large and mature market, if they can just eke out a tiny market share. It’s so tempting – surely we can get at least 0.5% market share, and with a $100 billion market, that’s $500 million in sales for us. Yes, there are large start-up costs, but once we break in, our profit can be $50 million annually in five years! This siren song is always accompanied by detailed financial projections, under baseline assumptions and stress tests. Ostensibly, this is good risk management practice, as the assumptions are explicit. But all too often I’ve seen these assumptions insufficiently justified, the stress tests not broad or severe enough, and the risks inadequately addressed.


This is where the actuary – the quantitatively astute skeptic and businessperson – can be invaluable. The actuary recognizes that market share is a function of how you distinguish yourself relative to competitors, and this is amenable to quantitative and qualitative analysis. The actuary needs evidence for assumptions, and can trace them back to specific operational actions or broader business conditions. The actuary recognizes that numerical assumptions should only be considered as placeholders for a range of possible outcomes, not an exact prediction; deviations can be multiples of the original assumption, not just plus or minus 20%. The actuary recognizes that these deviations represent risks to the business and should be managed attentively, not hoped away. And here’s the best part: the actuary is equipped to help manage these risks, sometimes through operational actions, sometimes through investment transactions, and sometimes through insurance transactions. Common sense meets modern risk management – now that is a powerful combination.