Risk Management Reports

August, 2004
Volume 31, No. 8
Focus – Overfocus – Unfocus – Refocus

Each summer, in mid-June, I load the car with computer gear, Risk Management Reports files, warm-weather clothing and a store of reading, and drive five hours northeast to Tenants Harbor, Maine. There I set up operations for three full months of reorienting my thinking and changing from my normal pace of life in Lyme, Connecticut. Yes, I admit that I am retired, but even a septuagenarian requires a periodic shift in focus. It’s this change that clears the mind and revives the spirit. Part of my shift is a result of serving as the financial officer, general factotum and handyman for a junior sailing program that runs for six weeks just off our dock in the harbor. Outboards that fail to run, lost battens, missing clevis pins, holes in sails, damaged mast-steps, carving a new bailer from a plastic bottle, a VHF radio dropped into the drink, parents anxious about their offspring: all require the immediate attention of the nearest adult, and I drop my reading, writing and emailing to respond to each new crisis. They materialize like midgets exiting the tiny car at the circus. It’s amazing that, at the end of most days, I’ve lived and breathed only sailboats, without a thought about risk management!

And that’s my point. In this hyperactive world of workaholics and over-achievers, where a 40-hour workweek is considered laughable by the denizens of Washington, Wall Street, the City and Mumbai, I see too many signs of over-focus. Government and corporate objectives take top priority. Employees respond with ten and twelve hour workdays. In Germany one company persuaded its union to shift to a 40-hour workweek instead of the conventional 35 without any increase in pay, trying to catch up with the vaunted US "productivity." This mantra of "productivity," increasing total per-person financial output, overlooks the idea that quality of output is more important than financial volume.

In government one result of over-focus is the growing prevalence of “groupthink,” the inability or unwillingness of staff to challenge the ideas of aggressive leaders, following them blindly into chaos. Barbara Ehrenreich summed it up correctly: "while the capacity for groupthink is an endearing part of our (US) legacy as social animals, it’s also a common precedent for self-destruction." (The New York Times, July 15, 2004). Some of this is religious in nature. Is there any major difference between the narrow-minded "biblical worldview" of some in Washington and Jerusalem and that of the fundamental Islamics in Riyadh, Teheran and Baghdad? A different hymnal, yes, but these are the same misinterpretations based on

an unwillingness to violate "principles." And could this groupthink be the result of an incessant over-focus, without taking the time to step away from the fray and consider other options? Skepticism is a critical ingredient of rational focus. Hendrik Hertzberg explained this well in a short piece in The New Yorker (March 19, 2001): "Acts that are ’faith-based’ stand a good chance of being beneficial to humanity, but not a better chance than acts that are skepticism-based—that is, grounded in an understanding of morality that does not rely on fear (or love) of divine authority (or any other kind of authority, for that matter)."

I have no criticism of applying total concentration when it is warranted. Professional golfers demonstrate this intensity on their tours, and the victory of Todd Hamilton in the British Open in July was a clear illustration of his ability to shut out extraneous noise and play the game. Similarly, the face of Lance Armstrong winning mountain stages and time trials in the Tour de France showed the same level of uncorrupted concentration and focus. Yet golfers and cyclists alike shut down their focus each day and between tournaments and races. Their ability to unfocus and shift their views may be the secret of their long-term success.

This is the lesson I learn from my annual shift from Lyme to Maine: a change in focus inevitably recharges my enthusiasm and interest in our fascinating discipline. In a world of over-focus, we, as risk managers, should suggest more time to refocus our thoughts.

It was only the sea sounding weary after so many lifetimes of pretending to be rushing off somewhere and never getting anywhere.

Charles Simic, "Late September", The New Yorker, September 16, 2002

Copyright 2004, by H. Felix Kloman and Seawrack Press, Inc.

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