Positive Risk – A Positive Disaster

Positive risk is an ill-conceived concept in risk management that makes a mess of things. It’s sometimes understood to be the benefit or reward, imagined before taking some action, for which the risky action was taken, and other times understood to mean a non-zero chance of an unexpected beneficial consequence of taking a chance. Many practitioners mix the two meanings without seeming to grasp the difference. For example, in Fundamentals of Enterprise Risk Management John J Hampton defends the idea of positive risk: “A lost opportunity is just as much a financial loss as is damage to people and property.”  Hampton then relates the story of US Airways flight 1549, which made a successful emergency water landing on the Hudson River in 2009. Noting the success of the care team in accommodating passengers, Hampton describes the upside to this risk: “US Airways received millions of dollars of free publicity and its reputation soared.” Putting aside the perversity of viewing damage containment as an upside of risk, any benefit to US Airways from the happy outcome of successfully ditching a plane in a river seems poor grounds for intentionally increasing the likelihood of repeating the incident because of “positive risk.”

While it’s been around for a century, the concept of positive risk has become popular only in the last few decades. Its popularity likely stems from enterprise risk management (ERM) frameworks that rely on Frank Knight’s (“Risk, Uncertainty & Profit,” 1921) idiosyncratic definition of risk. Knight equated risk with what he called “measurable uncertainty” – what most of us call probability –  which he differentiated from “unmeasurable uncertainty,” which is what most of us call ignorance (not in the pejorative sense).

Knight wrote:

“To preserve the distinction which has been drawn in the last chapter between the measurable uncertainty and an unmeasurable one we may use the term “risk” to designate the former and the term “uncertainty” for the latter.”

Many ERM frameworks rely on Knight’s terminology, despite it being at odds with the risk language of insurance, science, medicine, and engineering – and everywhere else throughout modern history. Knight’s usage of terms conflicted with that of his more mathematically accomplished contemporaries including Ramsey, Kolmogorov, von Mises, and de Finetti. But for whatever reason, ERM frameworks embrace it. Under that conception of risk, one is forced to allow that positive risk exists to provide for positive (desirable) and negative undesirable) future outcomes of present uncertainty. To avoid confusion, the word, “positive,” in positive risk in ERM circles means desirable and beneficial, and not merely real or incontestable (as in positive proof).

The concepts that positive risk jumble and confound are handled in other risk-analysis domains with due clarity. Other domains acknowledge that risk is taken, when it is taken rather than being transferred or avoided, in order to gain some reward; i. e., a risk-reward calculus exists. Since no one would take risk unless some potential for reward existed (even if merely the reward of a thrill) the concept of positive risk is held as incoherent in risk-centric fields like aerospace and nuclear engineering. Positive risk confuses cause with effect, purpose with consequence, and uncertainty with opportunity; and it makes a mess of communications with serious professionals in other fields.

As evidence that only within ERM and related project-management risk tools is the concept of positive risk popular, note that the top 25 two-word strings starting with “risk” in Google’s data (e.g., aversion, mitigation, reduction, tolerance, premium, alert, exposure) all imply unwanted outcomes or expenses. Further, none of the top 10,000 collocates ending with “risk” include “positive” or similar words.

While the PMI and ISO 31000 and similar frameworks promote the idea of positive risk, most of the language within their publications does not accommodate risk being desirable. That is, if risk can be positive, the frameworks would not talk mostly of risk mitigation, risk tolerance, risk-avoidance, and risk reduction – yet they do. The conventional definition of risk appearing in dictionaries for the 200 years prior to the birth of ERM, used throughout science and engineering, holds that risk is a combination of the likelihood of an unwanted occurrence and its severity. Nothing in the common and historic definition of risk disallows that taking risks can have benefits or positive results – again, the reason we take risk is to get rewards. But that isn’t positive risk.

Dropping the concept of positive risk would prevent a lot of confusion, inconsistencies, and muddled thinking. It would also serve to demystify risk models built on a pretense of rigor and reeking of obscurantism, inconsistency, and deliberate vagueness masquerading as esoteric knowledge.

The few simple concepts mixed up in the idea of positive risk are easily extracted. Any particular risk is the chance of a specific unwanted outcome considered in combination with the undesirability (i.e. cost or severity) of that outcome. Chance means probability or a measure of uncertainty, whether computable or not; and rational agents take risks to get rewards. The concepts are simple, clear, and useful. They’ve served to reduce the rate of fatal crashes by many orders of magnitude in the era of passenger airline flight. ERM’s track record is less impressive. When I confront chieftans of ERM with this puzzle, they invariably respond, with confidence of questionable provenance, that what works in aviation can’t work in ERM.

ERM insiders maintain that risk-management disasters like AIG, Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, UBS, etc. stemmed from improper use of risk frameworks. The belief that ERM is a thoroughbred who’s had a recent string of bad jockeys is the stupidest possible interpretation of an endless stream of ERM failures, yet one that the authors of ISO 31000 and risk frameworks continue to deploy with straight faces. Those authors, who penned the bollixed “effect of uncertainty on objectives” definition of risk (ISO 31000 2009) threw a huge bone to big consultancies positioned to peddle such poppycock to unwary clients eager to curb operational risk.

The absurdity of this broader ecosystem has been covered by many fine writers, apparently to no avail. Mlodinow’s The Drunkard’s Walk, Rosenzweig’s The Halo Effect, and Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness are excellent sources. Douglas Hubbard spells out the madness of ERM’s shallow and quirky concepts of probability and positive risk in wonderful detail in both his The Failure of Risk Management and How to Measure Anything in Cybersecurity Risk. Hubbard points out the silliness of positive risk by noting that few people would take a risk if they could get the associated reward without exposure to the risk.

My greatest fear in this realm is that the consultants peddling this nonsense will infect aerospace, aviation and nuclear power as they have done in the pharmaceutical world, much of which now believes that an FMEA is risk management and that Functional Hazard Analysis is a form you complete at the beginning of a project.

The notion of positive risk is certainly not the only flaw in ERM models, but chucking this half-witted concept would be a good start.


  1. #1 by Matthew Squair on January 2, 2018 - 11:50 pm

    I agree, ISO 31000 is a tyre dump fire, not at all helpful. John Adams, of risk homeostasis fame, questions whether it’s actually fit fr purpose.


  2. #2 by Bill Storage on January 3, 2018 - 10:44 pm

    Thanks Mathew. John’s point unfortunately applies to a much broader problem of process zealotry – investing in a culture of mindless indeed.

  3. #3 by Anonymous on January 15, 2018 - 3:17 pm

    Like fake news and Participation Trophies (when everyone wins, no one does), “positive risk” is another happy talk way to make the real unreal. The fancy pants authors – and lately the ISO/PMI culture – should call it what it is (Opportunity maybe) and not what it ain’t.

    • #4 by richard brakeman on January 15, 2018 - 3:25 pm

      Like fake news and Participation Trophies (when everyone wins, no one does), “positive risk” is another happy talk way to make the real unreal. The fancy pants authors – and lately the ISO/PMI culture – should call it what it is (Opportunity maybe) and not what it ain’t.

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