Turning the tide against gun violence requires new thinking. Risk management professional Judy Analco shares a possible solution, taking a page from corporate America.
In a small Chicago suburb, America’s 246th birthday party was juxtaposed with a mass shooting. Like most, I was gutted at the prospect of witnessing the inconceivable pain of yet another group of innocents and learning about the always-present clues that emerge too late.
The rest of the world, however, may wonder — rightfully — why my home country expects a different outcome when we have repeatedly chosen the same action. Or more precisely, inaction.
At this juncture, our nation has everything to gain by expanding the collective aperture and approaching the issue of mass violence with a mindset and tools that have proven effective for detecting and managing risks in other domains. Lateral thinking could offer a fresher, multidisciplinary perspective and refocus our attention on the individuals behind such violence — our only true hope for sustainable change.
One such option lies in my field of enterprise risk management. In the same way we urge businesses to resist viewing their risks as static, singular or independent, our nation could benefit from approaching the issue of mass violence as an evolving set of interdependent risks.
To create agility to respond to any kind of risk, we coach clients to consider the potential of one risk to amplify others or even create additional risks. To structure such exercises we use a simple, four-part matrix.
I believe one part of the matrix holds particular promise for addressing issues of mass violence: the unknown knowns. Such risks are visible to certain individuals but not necessarily to those with accountability for addressing them. We advise investing significant effort in uncovering these risks as they present ripe opportunities for earlier action and even prevention.
Across my career I have served in the somber role of assisting organizations in the aftermath of significant failures of risk management: corporate malfeasance, fraud, workplace fatalities and beyond. The universal condition was a leadership blindspot — there were unknown knowns that could have been identified and managed. If there were any silver linings, they came in the form of restructured priorities and commitments subsequently embedded into the business strategies.
In contrast, our country suffers ongoing, large-scale tragedies and we refuse to pivot toward prevention.
We must disrupt this pattern. Instead of perpetuating the status quo and leaning on after-the-fact response, we can choose to explicitly surface the threat indicators, join them together for experts to gauge their potential impact and likelihood and convert that knowledge into swift and action proportional to the risk.
Each action that precedes a mass shooting event represents an opportunity to disrupt it. Notwithstanding the arguments on gun control, focusing on the individual at risk of committing acts of violence may present the most prime, upstream opportunity for prevention. The more upstream we can intervene, the more impactful our response can be, provided we couple threat assessment with sustained social scaffolding tailored to the social, emotional and other needs of the individual.
There is power in synthesizing early warnings and encouraging those who notice something to share it. Taken individually, unknown knowns may be insufficient intelligence to justify intervention. But when viewed collectively, a holistic picture can emerge. We can connect these dots into a picture that drives effective response.
In real life
For our country to embrace a forward-leaning, risk-aware culture around the prevention of mass violence, we would need a framework that connects a robust strategy with execution with assurance.
Lessons learned from large global businesses can help create that roadmap. Executive teams tackle ambitious goals in part by identifying barriers, consulting stakeholders and experts and leveraging proof of concept and existing best practices.
In a similar vein, why couldn’t our country stand up trained, county-level “SWIFT” teams (social welfare interventional field team), akin to our highly specialized National Transportation Safety Board that convenes to investigate disasters but in this case before the tragedy occurs?
We could create tools to assess risks and guide next steps, along with the necessary data infrastructure and privacy controls. This would necessitate intensive, national awareness-building and incentive planning. And consolidating the clues and moving the unknown unknowns into the light would not be enough. We would need to support at-risk individuals over time while reducing the community’s risk to acceptable levels.
America can reject the status quo by adopting an “unknown knowns” framework and providing sustainable social scaffolding. By intervening far upstream of a potential mass shooting, we stand a chance of disrupting a tragic chain of events.
Catastrophe is an unwelcome but wise teacher. The least we can do is learn.