Thursday, March 27, 2014

Institutional Risk Aversion

I had a few chats today with people that got me to thinking. What happens when an institution's practices entail so much delay, instability, high potential costs that failing is considered an excessively bad thing?   I likened the situation to that of a patient splayed out on an operating table, chest split and spread for open heart surgery - anything less than overwhelming success means death.

Do rational people in this situation become risk averse? Not exactly. Rational people are already risk averse and know seek to manage the risk. They may not have the tools to do that, but they'll try. But people without the proper tools may, I've observed, fall into a mindset of anti-risk fundamentalism.

Anti-Risk

Most rational people understand that with risk comes reward, and there is some degree of an correlated relationship. People who come to believe they cannot effectively manage risk may seek instead to avoid it altogether. In a futile effort to avoid risks, the costs of the insurance schemes they impose skyrockets and risk is accumulated instead of being diffused.

Fundamentalism

The anti-risk orientation radicalizes into a belief system and persistent world-view. Instead of seeing the extreme costs and consequences that their avoidance will necessarily cause as an eventuality, they set themselves and others up for even bigger failures with colossal consequences. As the mindset infiltrates people and process, it becomes cliche, a dogma of accepted practice to be followed as a consensus position of creed.

Life Finds a Way

We don't want to be the open heart surgeon operating where one false move will kill the patient. We want to be a microbe, spawning offspring rapidly in multiple generations whose sole purpose is to test the boundaries of what can be done, spawn more potential solutions, and die cheaply. And do it all in a manner as quickly as possible.

In other words, we shouldn't be avoiding failure, but allowing the number of failures to float freely upward, while simultaneously pushing the individual costs of failures down as arbitrarily close to zero as we can practically get.

I won't use the "A" word here, but there are lots of tools available today that would help mitigate the pooling of risk into higher and higher levels.  Service orientation. Migrations. Test Driven Development. Version Control. Configuration Management. Virtual Machine environments. Automated Deployment. It isn't nearly as difficult as it used to be to get an isolated environment up and running.
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