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Case Studies

ISRM online conference: day two

Day two of the ISRM’s three-day virtual conference heard from Dr Robert MacFarlane, Deputy Director, Civil Contingency Secretariat, UK Cabinet Office; from ‘sunny Geneva’, David Horobin, Head of Crisis Management Cluster, Geneva Centre for Security Policy; and the retired four-star US General Stanley McChrystal.

As on day one, it was striking that while much was said about the present, and notably the Covid-19 pandemic, the speakers were very much thinking of what might come next, whether a ‘second wave’ of coronavirus or some other, recurrent, crisis, whether due to some cyber risk or climate change, to name only two, known, possibilities. After introductions by Dr David Rubens, founder of the Institute of Strategic Risk Management (ISRM), Rob MacFarlane spoke first.

In a talk that quoted widely, he summed up about what is a ‘resilient response’ – not just one that pushes through all the obstacles, but that actually adapts and improves, and acknowledges the making of mistakes; but understanding, and accepting that. He touched also on personal resilience and welfare; saying that to be effective in a crisis you need to be ‘comfortable with discomfort’. People absolutely matter the most, he said; and like other speakers he quoted from day one – in this case, Dr David Rubens’ point that near misses are opportunities for learning.

That point about discomfort – things going wrong or not to plan – was also covered by Stan McChrystal, who ranged over his military service in his talk. On leadership, and a ‘culture of risk’, he recalled how after the failure of the US’ Iranian hostage attempted rescue in 1980, the idea was never to ‘fail the nation’ on such an important mission again – and the idea of the need for more of everything, more back-up, and resources, to avoid failure; but that was not appropriate for Iraq after 2003. McChrystal described how he tried to change that; because no-one wanted to be the next person in a tele-conference to say that they had failed, the night before. “But the reality was, w had to have a lot of failures if we were going to get a lot of successes; you just couldn’t operate unless you accepted a high percentage of failures.”

He stressed, therefore, how he and his organisation (the counter-terror US military in Iraq after 2003) responded to failure; and that some operations would fail, yet had to be briefed about afterwards in a daily tele-conference. As McChrystal recalled, even his facial expressions mattered, or if he took his glasses off, when told of a failed operation: “So I had to be very careful.” McChrystal sought to reply to show that he still wanted troops to go on, provided that they learned; which took time, he admitted.

Rubens’ final question to all the speakers – joined by a day one speaker, ISRM president Lord Toby Harris – was; what’s the next thing that we should be ready for?! McChrystal returned to an earlier point, that also arose on day one – the difference between resilience and efficiency; indeed, that if systems or processes are so tight, that can lead to vulnerabilities, that can cascade if things go wrong. Robert MacFarlane spoke of being highly reliant on cyber – as indeed the ISRM event is, being online via Zoom – which brings cyber risk. Toby Harris spoke of ‘looming changes’ such as climate change, and suggested that we should be preparing for a set of consequences’ – what they are, doesn’t matter. According to David Horobin, whose background includes Dfid and the International Red Cross-Red Crescent, the biggest worry was lack of money for preparedness. Rubens’ closing point; the world is complex, and a VUCA world (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous); ‘but that is the world we are operating in’.

To sign up for the conference visit the ISRM website:

For a digest of day one, click here. See also the September 2020 print edition of Professional Security magazine.


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