This is Rob Long’s third book, after “Risk Makes Sense” and “For The Love Of Zero”.

Let me start with some critical notes, I think it is not the strongest in the series so far. As a whole I found much of the book a bit fragmentary, a bit repetitive in that it keeps coming back on the same subjects (common sense, zero) and there are many examples and anecdotes that could have been stronger to illustrate what is being discussed.

That aside, this still is a book worth reading and everyone has to pick up some learning points for themselves. This is not a simple DO-book, you have to actively think about what is presented and fit it in your own work. There are a couple of central messages. Let me just briefly mention two important ones:

1: Our society shows a tendency towards risk aversion (and the safety profession probably even more so). Rob makes a strong point that taking risk is an inherent and necessary part of learning. Without risk no learning. Without risk there will be dumbing down.

2: This book introduces the word ‘discerning’. This means to be “able to see and understand people, things, or situations clearly and intelligently” (according to Merriam-Webster). To do so we need wisdom, and besides we need to engage with risk. We cannot discern without handling risk. Discernment also goes beyond rational sensemaking - the a-rational (unconscious) aspect is important.

Like with Rob’s other books (for those who have not read them, there is a brief summary of the main ideas from both books in the introduction) you can read the chapters more or less separately, he provides transitions from one chapter to the other and he adds a couple of workshop questions to each chapter. There is also an extensive list with literature in case you want to explore further.

The book contains eight chapters, divided into three sections.

Section One (The Need for Discerning in Risk) comprises of the three first chapters. Chapter 1 introduces us to discernment (the ability to make informed choices), sensemaking (by Weick’s seven factors), attribution of risk and examples of lack of discernment (e.g. by a look at cults). The chapter closes with ten themes for Discernment.

Chapter 2 is titled Realities of Risk. It starts by extensively discussing risk aversion and why children need risk to grow up. It then takes up the subject of desensitisation and why gory shock stories are a bad way to teach safety, there is a short bit about automatic behaviour, habits, perception and risk and then a long part that describes various characteristics of risk. These include uncertainty, fun (!), imagination, subjectiveness, attribution, motivation and attraction. The chapter closes with fear and phobia. Risk aversion can be a phobia (irrational fear) of risk…

Chapter 3 deals with Adventure, Exploration and Risk. After some examples of adventurers, we get a brief take on Risk Intelligence and then on how we learn. Among this is the idea of scaffolding: building a supporting structure for learning to help build confidence, capability and competence. There is also a brief look at the ’10.000 Hours’ phenomenon (see Gladwell’s “Outliers”). Quite some space is devoted to the discussion of how dysfunctional and contra-productive some educational systems and standardised tests are.

Section Two (Disconnectedness and Risk) covers chapters four to six. First we learn how risk aversion leads to disconnectedness and we learn about the nature of disconnectedness. Through discussions of the myth of the lucky streak, common sense and leadership, we come to incentives and motivation.

Chapter 5 discusses Complexity and Risk. This is (in my opinion) one of the most interesting of the book. While I would refer you to for example Sidney Dekker (“Drift Into Failure”) or David Woods for a discussion of complexity, this chapter adds a fine discussion of Wicked Problems and of the various layers of problems. It closes with a brief look at simplistic (‘band-aid’) solutions and risk trade-offs.

The Sixth Chapter introduces us to Visual Literacy and Learning. Much of the chapter is devoted to briefly explaining principles and issues from the field of Social Psychology and their relevance to Risk. We get a.o. Caldini’s six ‘weapons of persuasion’, Bounded Rationality, the Bystander Effect, Cognitive Dissonance, Motivation, Risk Homeostasis and more. Way too brief to rally explain these things, but for people who have encountered them before a nice reminder and general overview. The chapter closes with Visual and Spacial Literacy, and while I feel the importance, I wonder if the explanation is entirely successful. Most useful is in any case the discussion of various lenses and filters to use when looking at a problem - looking this way will give a richer and better picture of risk (or other things).

Section Three contains the two final chapters and is titled “Connecting With Risk”. Chapter 7 takes us through some visual tools. Somehow, I expected some tools that would help you to visualise problems or risk, but that is not really what is here. Instead, we are presented some of the Human Dymensions visual tools that can assist you when looking at problems, for example that you look at both conscious and (especially) unconscious aspects of decision making. Some explanations work fine, but for example the ‘Critical Thinking Clock’ would have benefited from a better explanation, preferably with one or two examples. I agree wholly with the chapter’s conclusion: Questions are more transforming than answers. Because: if you have all the answers, where is the need for listening and learning? Allow me to quote the last paragraph of the chapter:

“If one is seeking to build relationships, engage in risk conversations and focus on learning, then one needs good questions that promote dialogue and encourage conversations. Engagement, conversation and listening are transformative because they create learning and community. In community, one stands alongside others, but in zero one stands ‘over’ others. Absolute rule doesn’t need to listen or learn, it can only control and deny complexity and free will”.

The final chapter deals with “The Practice of Embracing Risk” which is important to learn, but should not be done recklessly, of course. As Rob says in the final part: “If one is truly to make sense of risk, one must embrace risk with intelligence, wisdom and discernment within the structure of a supportive community”. Much of the chapter deals therefore with community and communities of practice. I see parallels here to the work of Frederic Laloux (“Reinventing Organisations”) and Simon Sinek (“Leaders Eat Last”), both of which can be added to the extensive bibliography in the back of the book. 

ISBN 978-0-646-90942-4