Risk Versus Reward – Understanding why we take risk and how to assess its valueBy Jack Goener September 7, 2021
This article looks at the absence of reward analysis in our doctrine. It will provide some recommendations on how we can better analyse reward. Combining components of Military Risk Management and the Military Appreciation Process can lead to better reward analysis and lower risk aversion. This enables us to take risk now to avoid risk in the future.
How we asses risk
Our risk management tool focuses us on defining the risk, understanding the existing risk controls, and adding additional controls to reduce the residual risk. We are then able to reduce the risk to an acceptable level for the appropriate level of approval. This approach generates a loss of focus on the reason that we are taking the risk in the first place.
Further, even if we have reduced the risk so far as reasonably possible and our analysis of risk to mission, personnel, capability, resources, reputation and environment (MPCRRE) produce green and yellow risk levels; mission doesn’t get a say in the PEAR (people, environment, actions, resources) analysis. Nowhere in the military risk management framework is there a time to consider the reward, or even confirm that the objective of the activity has not been degraded.
Figure 1: Army Risk Management Process
To consider how we analyse reward between courses of action, we are be able to turn to the Military Appreciation Process. In Course of Action (COA) Development, we assess each COA against the principles; Feasible, Acceptable, Sustainable, Discernible. Under acceptability we are asked to consider the risk versus outcome of the COA.
“Acceptability. The COA is assessed for acceptability by comparing the probable risk (cost) versus the probable outcome of the COA in fulfilling the superior commander’s intent. The commander must make a judgment based on understanding of the potential gain of the intended battle in terms of its contribution to the overall success of the campaign, and against the likely cost of the battle in terms of personnel casualties, the time spent and resource usage. This step aims to avoid unnecessary conflict and risk.”
This asks the commander to compare a subjective assessment of the COA’s contribution to their higher commander’s mission verses the objective and projected losses associated with the risks identified. How do we articulate or at the very least visualise the “probable outcome?" MPCRRE at the desired end state in support of the higher commander’s intent provides us with a useful tool. By projecting the probable impact on MPCRRE at the end-state of the decisive phase we can more quantitatively understand the risk we are taking. Once we understand that risk in detail, we are in a better position to assess the reward.
The reward should be the difference between taking the risk in the first place and not taking it at all “in terms of its contribution to the overall success of the campaign”. This is the assessment of the risk posed in the future to a force that hasn’t taken a risk.
For example, suppose you do not take the risk of inserting a cut-off force behind your enemy. You cannot achieve destroy, only clear. As such by not taking the risk your enemy is able to withdraw a portion of its combat power. Your contribution to the campaign is diminished and you have transferred the risk into the future by allowing the enemy to re-posture in good order. By clearly defining the risk over time we can more effectively understand the reward.
This articulated reward must then be taken into a COA Analysis, which only asks to assess and refine the risk controls. The degree of risk associated with the COA is then back briefed to command, but not in the context of the “probable outcome of the COA in fulfilling the superior commander’s intent.” A more useful discussion would be the merits of the rewards presented by the alternative COAs.
The FASD assessment identifies risk and ensures that we don’t take unworkable COA forward. As such the COA Analysis back brief should simply be confirmation of the risk mitigation measures identified and requested during COA Dev. More importantly, the back brief should include the advantage of taking that risk now in relation to the proposed reduction of risk in the future. This is a really important question for us to ask now in between wars.
Why we take Risk
In part two of Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow he discusses regression to the mean (ie. average). He gives an example of professional golfers performing well on one day and regressing the day after, and vice versa. However, the mean that the golfer is regressing to is higher than your average golfer because they are a professional. Likewise, in our profession our performance varies but always regresses to the mean. The challenge is then to ensure that the mean we regress to is higher than our enemy’s. We can only do that through realistic training that requires the acceptance of risk.
We have to take risk now to ensure that we reduce risk in future conflict. The focus of our Work Health and Safety policy is to reduce risk at the time of the activity or as quickly as possible. The time horizon for the analysis of reward is too short, and so the reward of taking risk is degraded. We need to look to COA Dev to consider the future impacts of taking risk.
Recently, CO 6 RAR authorised the reduction in safety supervisor ratios on a live-fire manoeuvre range. This was not due to the lack of safety supervisors available, but a desire to increase the risk threshold in the short-term in order to reduce the exposure to risk in the future. By accepting more risk in training, a more realistic training environment was provided to the battalion’s junior commanders. This in turn gives them greater confidence to employ their teams in combat and thereby reducing risk in a future conflict.
What is the reward?
The reward of taking risk now has to be the reduction of risk in the future. We may accept a level of risk to the intended battle as it pertains to MPCRRE, only if it reduces risk to the success of the campaign.
We are doctrinally focused on mitigating risk and as such are at risk of losing sight of the reward that taking it offers. We need to better analyse reward and accept it over risk. The MRM framework on its own provides for us a sub-optimal way to compare courses of action and think critically about opportunities – particularly in non-warlike or training environments. Similarly, the MAP provides little room for reward analysis. Utilising both together enables us to take risks that better prepare us for the next war and ensure that we can adapt rapidly to it. We know that our ability to assess risk is heavily influenced by subconscious biases, so it is important to have objective tools to compare risk and reward – not just reduce risk to a hierarchically acceptable standard. It’s important to take risk now to reduce risk in the future. Our doctrine provides us the tools to do it and our profession demands it.
 LWD 5-1-4 The Military Appreciation Process – Chapter 5 Para 5.21
 LWD 3-0-3 Formation Tactics Interim Chapter 1 Annex 1
 LWD 5-1-4 The Military Appreciation Process – Chapter 2 Para 6.6
 Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux