The Race to the South Pole:
The Organizational Politics of Risk Management

On 14 December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to risk managers and organizational leaders who want to control the influence of organizational politics on risk management, the story is fascinating as a source of insights.

Let's suppose that it's your job to identify possible risks that might arise during the course of a major reorganization. You recognize immediately that the engineers in the Springfield facility will not take well to the news that their organization will be relocated and combined with Portland. You're also aware that those who designed the reorganization based much of the justification for their plan on the savings from the Springfield/Portland consolidation. You think it only wise to allocate resources for voluntary turnover, and to create response plans to mitigate the consequences of product development delays caused by that turnover.

You're also aware that even broaching these ideas is politically risky. Does this conundrum feel at all familiar? In its various forms, it's quite common.

The Race to the South Pole: The Organizational Politics of Risk Management

What happens in these situations is usually subtle and often undetectable. Without realizing it, the risk manager shades the projections implied by these concerns so as to reduce the political risk of raising the issue. With each new shaded projection, the risk plan gradually becomes increasingly unrealistic. Its value to the organization is degraded to the extent that politics intimidates the risk planner.

Although any discussion of the effect of workplace politics on risk management can be enlightening, risk management as a topic can be a bit abstract — even a little dry. In this program, I've — ahem — managed that risk by expressing its message in terms of the story of the race to the South Pole that occurred in 1910-1912. This program includes all of the material presented in The Organizational Politics of Risk Management, but it includes numerous examples of its important lessons, drawn from the story of the race to the pole. And it's illustrated with numerous expedition photographs. The impact of this approach is a memorable, suspenseful, and (for many) thrilling look at risk management and its interplay with organizational politics.

Political dynamics is not responsible for all defects in risk processes, but controlling the impact of politics would help. Using the story of the race to the pole we explore ways not to eliminate the impact of politics on the risk process; rather, the goal is control. This distinction is important because eliminating all politics from the risk process — if such a feat were possible — would eliminate the creative effects of politics along with the destructive. And we also learn about the tragic consequences of failing to control the effects of politics.

The framework for Enterprise Risk Management developed by the Treadway Commission provides a useful way to explore the effects of organizational politics. We will examine how politics affects the eight components of the framework:

  • Internal Environment
  • Objective Setting
  • Event Identification
  • Risk Assessment
  • Risk Response
  • Control Activities
  • Information and Communication
  • Monitoring

We can view the contributions of organizational politics to all these processes, taken together, as components of risk management risk: the risk that the overall risk management process is inadequate.

Understanding the sources of political contributions to risk management risk is a good beginning. But what we really need are a means of controlling how politics influences risk management. We explore the six principles of controlling political effects on risk management:

  1. The manner of creation and use of risk products is an emergent, systemic property of the organization
  2. Introducing the management of risk management risk entails dramatic organizational change
  3. Assessing risk management risk requires (possibly new) formal measurements
  4. The needed changes will feel wrong
  5. Part of the solution must be political
  6. Changing the political culture requires commitment and resources

Program outline

This program is available as a keynote, workshop, seminar, breakout, or clinic. For the shorter formats, coverage of the outline below is selective.

  1. Introduction
    1. The advantages of historical retrospective
    2. The advantages of A/B retrospectives
    3. Project overview: get to the South Pole (and back)
  2. Politics and risk
    1. What is organizational politics?
    2. The six components of the COSO framework for Enterprise Risk Management
    3. How organizational politics can influence the risk management process
  3. Risk management risk
    1. What is risk management risk
    2. The effects of organizational politics: elimination or control?
    3. The six principles of controlling politics
  4. Gaining control of organizational politics
    1. Kotter's Eight Guidelines for Organizational Change
    2. Tailoring Kotter's Guidelines for the politics of risk management
    3. Metrics for monitoring political effects
  5. Summary and wrap-up
    1. How we can apply these lessons in modern organizations
    2. What to do tomorrow
    3. Monitoring your own learning
    4. Resources for the future

Learning model

The one-day and two-day formats of this program include copies of my ebook 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics for all participants and their supervisors (a value). Ideal for those who like to supplement their learning by reading, or as a reference for later study. MoreWe usually think of workplace skills as if they were free of emotional content. We hold this belief even though we know that our most difficult situations can be highly charged. Despite these sincere beliefs, taking personal or organizational performance to the next level does require learning how to apply what we know even in situations of high emotional content. That's why this program uses a learning model that differs from the one often used for technical content.

Our learning model is partly experiential, which makes the material accessible even during moments of stress. Using a mix of presentation, simulation, group discussion, and metaphorical team problems, we make available to participants the resources they need to make new, more constructive choices even in tense situations.

Target audience

Executives, risk managers, managers, project managers, and leaders at all levels. We work either with individuals, or with an entire team or with a group drawn from many teams.

Program duration

Available formats range from 50 minutes to two full days. The longer formats allow for more coverage or more material, more experiential content and deeper understanding of issues specific to audience experience.

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