The Problems That Plague Us

Imagine this scenario. One terrible morning, you wake up with a shooting pain in your chest, a badly leaking roof on your house, and a text message on your mobile device that you lost your job.

What would you do? Undoubtedly, you would prioritize. First, you would go to the emergency room. If your diagnosis is “merely a bad case of indigestion,” you would quickly patch the roof with a temporary plug. Then you would get your resume in order and change your LinkedIn status to “available.”

After a couple of days, what would you do? You would reassess your risks and reprioritize these challenges. Is your indigestion now chronic and severe, making it impossible for you to get any sleep? It might become your short term priority. But what if the temporary roof patch is leaking badly? Then you might shift gears and focus on a more permanent solution.

Finally, what if you learn that you are about to receive no severance pay and no continuation of employer-paid health benefits? Then a new job – any new job – might become your top priority.

You would not actually attempt to manage all concerns simultaneously. Multi-tasking, after all, is not a feasible strategy because it prevents you from focusing on any single consideration. Instead, you would frequently reassess each of your concerns and continually shift your attention to the issue that represents your new immediate priority.

Analogous challenges now confront us at the global level. Instead of confronting the personal risks of heart and digestive failure, house infrastructure failure, and job failure, we are confronting the communal risks of coronavirus, wildfires and hurricanes, and economic recession. How can we possibly solve all problems simultaneously?

Indeed, we cannot solve them all at once. Not if we wish to “do it well.” Thus, we must be prepared to frequently reassess these crises and then refocus on our reframed priorities.

This sounds like a game of Whack-A-Mole, doesn’t it? Over time, though, the proverbial “moles” may become progressively smaller, and we may expend considerably less energy when we deliver each “whack.”

We can, indeed, find guidance to help us plan this approach. Page 7 of the Executive Summary of COSO’s 2017 Enterprise Risk Management: Integrating with Strategy and Performance lists twenty practices for managing risk. The eleventh through thirteenth practices are: Identifies Risk, Assesses Severity of Risk, and Prioritizes Risk.

As a society, we have already identified the crises that bedevil us. But there is no national strategy for assessing and prioritizing the problems, and thus no plan for expending scarce resources on potential solutions.

If we can simply apply the proven COSO guidance to the challenges that now face us, we may be able to devise effective solutions. If we cannot, we will continue to lurch from crisis to crisis, unable to solve the problems that plague us.