Column: Risk Management

The Upside of Uncertainty

By: | October 15, 2015 • 3 min read

Joanna Makomaski is a specialist in innovative enterprise risk management methods and implementation techniques. She can be reached at [email protected]

Just recently, a friend needed some help with a tough decision and wanted to sound out her decision process between two job opportunities. Both options were full of uncertainty.


When we spoke about her potential bosses, she was uncertain if they were good people. In other words, she feared they may not be very nice.

When we spoke of the job security, she was uncertain one organization was stable. In other words, she feared her job may be short term.

When we spoke of her potential for succession, she was uncertain there was room to grow. In other words, she feared her job would be a dead end.

The conversation got a bit draining. When I sat back to think about why, I realized that we covered only the uncertainty of negative things. Her decision process was driven mostly by fear and pessimism and she failed to be inspired by faith and opportunity.

But it seems, we all tend to do that. I think of the expression: “Where there is mystery, the human mind tends to go to dark places.” I have often used that expression in my speaking engagements when I try to convey the idea of “upside risk.”

Her decision process was driven mostly by fear and pessimism and she failed to be inspired by faith and opportunity.

Imagine you are walking down the hall at the office. You see two colleagues chatting in the distance. As they see you approach, they quickly stop talking. It is obvious they stopped because of your proximity.

So let us take an honest vote. Who would think that your colleagues were gossiping about you and curtailed the conversation so as to not hurt you?

Conversely, who would think they stopped talking because they did not want you to overhear details of the surprise birthday party they were planning for you?

When things are uncertain, why immediately associate it to something negative when we also have the opportunity for it to be positive? That is the paradoxical beauty of uncertainty. When nothing is sure, everything is possible. Uncertainty should fuel opportunity too. That is what we call “upside risk.”

People and businesses assess risk, mine data, carve learnings from past experiences and we do our “due diligence.” But often we only do this to gain more certainty around negative things that can happen.

However, true enterprise risk management organizations, mature ones, conduct “upside risk” assessments too. Upside risks act as your organization’s natural hedges against your ever more popular “downside risk.”


Our human condition naturally makes it difficult to do “upside risk” assessments. If you don’t believe me, facilitate a risk assessment session where at first you only elicit negative risks. Then switch. Ask the group to talk about things that “could go overly right” in your organization.

You will be inundated with negative risks. Moreover, you’ll find the longer the negative risk list, people will feel more certain and secure by knowing you have captured the scary business monsters and now have actionable risk attack plans for them. I take no issue with that. That is good risk management. But it is only one side of the story.

Your upside risk list will be much shorter. I truly feel we need to do a better job at identifying what should be on that list.

Not only would the assessment be conducted in a much more pleasant headspace, but the longer we can make the upside risk list, people will feel more certain and secure. They’ll know they have captured their great business opportunities and now have an actionable risk-fostering plan for those opportunities.

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

4 Companies That Rocked It by Treating Injured Workers as Equals; Not Adversaries

The 2018 Teddy Award winners built their programs around people, not claims, and offer proof that a worker-centric approach is a smarter way to operate.
By: | October 30, 2018 • 3 min read

Across the workers’ compensation industry, the concept of a worker advocacy model has been around for a while, but has only seen notable adoption in recent years.

Even among those not adopting a formal advocacy approach, mindsets are shifting. Formerly claims-centric programs are becoming worker-centric and it’s a win all around: better outcomes; greater productivity; safer, healthier employees and a stronger bottom line.


That’s what you’ll see in this month’s issue of Risk & Insurance® when you read the profiles of the four recipients of the 2018 Theodore Roosevelt Workers’ Compensation and Disability Management Award, sponsored by PMA Companies. These four programs put workers front and center in everything they do.

“We were focused on building up a program with an eye on our partner experience. Cost was at the bottom of the list. Doing a better job by our partners was at the top,” said Steve Legg, director of risk management for Starbucks.

Starbucks put claims reporting in the hands of its partners, an exemplary act of trust. The coffee company also put itself in workers’ shoes to identify and remove points of friction.

That led to a call center run by Starbucks’ TPA and a dedicated telephonic case management team so that partners can speak to a live person without the frustration of ‘phone tag’ and unanswered questions.

“We were focused on building up a program with an eye on our partner experience. Cost was at the bottom of the list. Doing a better job by our partners was at the top.” — Steve Legg, director of risk management, Starbucks

Starbucks also implemented direct deposit for lost-time pay, eliminating stressful wait times for injured partners, and allowing them to focus on healing.

For Starbucks, as for all of the 2018 Teddy Award winners, the approach is netting measurable results. With higher partner satisfaction, it has seen a 50 percent decrease in litigation.

Teddy winner Main Line Health (MLH) adopted worker advocacy in a way that goes far beyond claims.

Employees who identify and report safety hazards can take credit for their actions by sending out a formal “Employee Safety Message” to nearly 11,000 mailboxes across the organization.

“The recognition is pretty cool,” said Steve Besack, system director, claims management and workers’ compensation for the health system.

MLH also takes a non-adversarial approach to workers with repeat injuries, seeing them as a resource for identifying areas of improvement.

“When you look at ‘repeat offenders’ in an unconventional way, they’re a great asset to the program, not a liability,” said Mike Miller, manager, workers’ compensation and employee safety for MLH.

Teddy winner Monmouth County, N.J. utilizes high-tech motion capture technology to reduce the chance of placing new hires in jobs that are likely to hurt them.

Monmouth County also adopted numerous wellness initiatives that help workers manage their weight and improve their wellbeing overall.

“You should see the looks on their faces when their cholesterol is down, they’ve lost weight and their blood sugar is better. We’ve had people lose 30 and 40 pounds,” said William McGuane, the county’s manager of benefits and workers’ compensation.


Do these sound like minor program elements? The math says otherwise: Claims severity has plunged from $5.5 million in 2009 to $1.3 million in 2017.

At the University of Pennsylvania, putting workers first means getting out from behind the desk and finding out what each one of them is tasked with, day in, day out — and looking for ways to make each of those tasks safer.

Regular observations across the sprawling campus have resulted in a phenomenal number of process and equipment changes that seem simple on their own, but in combination have created a substantially safer, healthier campus and improved employee morale.

UPenn’s workers’ comp costs, in the seven-digit figures in 2009, have been virtually cut in half.

Risk & Insurance® is proud to honor the work of these four organizations. We hope their stories inspire other organizations to be true partners with the employees they depend on. &

Michelle Kerr is associate editor of Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]