Listening Practice: The Equation that can Stop the next Global Crisis | Gen. Stanley McChrystal

Crises are often predictable, even though we cannot know in advance the exact time or form they will take. 9/11, the 2008 financial crisis, and the COVID-19 pandemic were all — to some extent — foreseeable. So, why do governments drop the ball so often? We need to improve our capacity to predict risk and to become resilient to it.

Watch this video on Big Think and answer the questions that follow with your tutor.

Questions

  1. What is the greatest risk to us?

  2. ... in many cases those risks were actually very __________, not in exact time or form but in the fact that they would arise.

  3. What is the name of the book that Stan McChrystal co-authored most recently?

  4. I now think about it almost like a ____________: threat times vulnerability equals risk.

  5. What do we have control over?

  6. What can we make ourselves?

  7. We are blessed with a human immune system that does what?

  8. What happens if we don't tend to our risk immune system?

  9. No one ever died from HIV/AIDS. They died because their immune system was weakened, and then some smaller _______ killed them which normally wouldn't.

  10. What does he think the greatest risks in the world are?

  11. So sometimes we're _________ into thinking, "Well, we can get to it tomorrow."

  12. What does the previous sentence mean?

  13. So for example, one of the ways we can check our ________ or our plan is to check our assumptions.

  14. How can we do an assumptions check?

  15. Your people will be more mentally and physically ________ to respond to that, and that's the payoff.


Transcript

Sometimes we are reminded that the greatest risk to us is actually us.

If you go across any number of crises that come, in many cases those risks were actually very predictable, not in exact time or form but in the fact that they would arise. Before the 9/11 attacks that hit the World Trade Center in New York, all of the information necessary to stop the plot existed within the United States government. With the 2008 financial crisis, many of the causes of that were both set in place by action inside Wall Street, but they were also recognizable. Of course COVID-19, we've seen pandemics regularly for centuries, and we have a great understanding of public health. So we should've had the capacity to deal with it.

And so the question is, why don't we get it right? Why do we drop the ball so often?

I'm Stan McChrystal. And the most recent book that I've been a part of, I co-authored with Anna Butrico, is Risk: A User's Guide.

I've really come to have a different way of thinking about risk. I now think about it almost like a mathematical equation: threat times vulnerability equals risk. There are many threats out there in the world. If we were able to do away with them, to drive them to zero, our risk would be zero no matter how vulnerable we were because anything times zero is zero.

But none of us live in that world. We just don't have control over threats like that. So what do we have control over? Our vulnerabilities. Not complete control, but we have a lot of agency there. We can make ourselves stronger. We can make ourselves more able to withstand different threats that can arise.

We are all blessed with a human immune system. It detects threats to us, assesses those threats. It responds to them, normally kills them, and then it learns from it. I would argue that organizations and societies have the equivalent. They've got a risk immune system, factors that work together to allow us to detect threats, assess them, respond, and then learn in that process.

And so just as we have to keep our human immune system healthy, we have to build and keep healthy our risk immune system. If we don't tend to our risk immune system, we essentially become vulnerable to anything. No one ever died from HIV/AIDS. They died because their immune system was weakened, and then some smaller disease killed them which normally wouldn't. That can happen with any threat if you're not strong.

I'm often asked what do I think the greatest risks in the world are, or what keeps you up at night? In a geopolitical sense, of course, Vladimir Putin and Russia, but also the potential conflict or competition between China and the United States. The rise of North Korea as a nuclear power.

And then, of course, much more broadly, we have things like climate change. It's a slow-moving crisis. It doesn't happen overnight. So sometimes we're lulled into thinking, "Well, we can get to it tomorrow." Or something like education in America — in my country, education is not as strong as it needs to be. We don't produce enough qualified people for the kind of workforce we're going to need in tomorrow's economy.

And then, our own inability to get things done. Political partisanship has gotten to the point where it makes it difficult to do routine things, to vote routine legislation through, to do all the things that a government and a society has to do almost automatically or reflexively. And when we struggle to do those things, then external risks, like COVID-19, or God forbid, a conflict or economic challenge, have much greater impact on us. And it comes back to the idea that the greatest risk to us is us because we don't do those things to strengthen our own defenses.

So how do you build that resilience? How do you make the risk immune system work? If you're trying to strengthen an organization, you have several risk control factors, which will never be perfect. They'll never be all as strong as you'd like them to be, but they work together.

So for example, one of the ways we can check our strategy or our plan is to check our assumptions. We have certain facts, things that don't change, and we can accept those as facts for our planning. And then we have things we're just not sure of, things in the future, typically. What will be market conditions? What will interest rates be? What will the availability of certain people to hire be? And we have to make assumptions because you have to have something to work with to develop your plan. But the danger is those assumptions could be wrong.

So do an assumptions check. Go back to your plan, pull out all of the key assumptions you based it on. Because often you make the assumptions under some conditions, and things change over time. And those assumptions now are much less valid. They may have changed, or you just may know more. In military operations, that's one of the most dangerous things is to have misleading assumptions or invalid assumptions, and the same is true in business.

If you strengthen your risk immune system, when the unexpected happens — which you should expect — you're going to be more resilient. Your people will be more mentally and physically prepared to respond to that, and that's the payoff.

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