Three strikes – two metaphorical, one literal – and Jeremy Clarkson was out. When the BBC parted company with the Top Gear presenter they lost a talented broadcaster who was both comfortable within one of TV’s most successful formats and constantly looking for ways to subvert it. Clarkson’s adventure in Argentina, albeit laden with danger, is one such example of deploying risk-taking subversion to make interesting and challenging television. An apparent verbal slur and a physical attack are not.
There’s nothing wrong with risk, of course, especially for an organisation in search of differentiation. These differences can come in the form of content created, the treatment of content or the user experience offered. In all cases differentiation requires innovation and innovation requires taking a risk – and the BBC has those qualities in spades.
Yet, with risk comes responsibility. Ultimately, a failure to mitigate against the undesirable side effects of risk raises questions about management, albeit while acknowledging that one can never manage a tail event. As the financiers will tell you, a black swan can have a devastating effect on your portfolio returns.
So what does the Clarkson saga tell us about risk management? Without knowing every twist and turn of the BBC’s relationship with Top Gear and its star presenter, we might still be able to draw some indicative conclusions.
First it means reaching for a set text, in this case Eddie Obeng’s All Change!: Project Leader’s Secret Handbook (1994). In it Obeng defines four approaches to project management from the open “Fog” style where an organisation is unsure about what is to be done and unsure of how it is to be delivered, through to the closed “Painting-by-numbers” approach where there is certainty about both needs and methods, not least because it, or something very similar, has been done before. In between these two extremes come the semi-closed “Quest”-type project where there is certainty about what needs to be done but uncertainty about methods, and the semi-open “Movie” approach where methodology is not in doubt but outcomes are unclear.
Apply these four approaches to the genesis of a programme like Top Gear, and it seems fair to assume that the formulaic, me too “Painting-by-numbers” stance was never a serious option. Neither was an overblown “Quest”, nor a “Fog” approach when there was clarity around methods, at least.
All of which leaves the “Movie”, an iterative technique with more than a passing resemblance to today’s agile project management: create, test, iterate and repeat. This is a commendable approach. It allows programme makers to find out what works, to build on successes and learn from failure. But it has its drawbacks too, one of which is a propensity to lose sight of the greater goal in pursuit of short-term, tactical returns, such as audience figures.
One of the keys to good risk management is the ability to divorce typical measures of success – popularity and a healthier bottom line, for example – with the ongoing assessment of risk. Or, at the very least, put good news in the right context.
Is it possible, for example, that in the case of Top Gear, ever-growing viewing figures (to say nothing of ever-expanding global rights exploitation) fuelled an appetite for risk? Perhaps a feedback loop needed to close, applying a form of self-adjustment, instead of popularity and returns tracking the increasingly “risk-on” nature of the content.
What’s worth saying at this point is that no amount of risk management could have foreseen the single event that accounted for Clarkson’s departure.
Nevertheless, it’s broadly the case that net exposure to risk can be mitigated by quality analysis, by putting in place a contextual risk management framework and by constant monitoring.
Moreover, understanding and managing the risk profile of a project from the outset is a key responsibility of the project manager, or the producer.
That leaves one final decision: when to be “risk-on and when to be “risk-off”.
Image credit SuperCar-RoadTrip.fr on Flickr.
He is a former Management Consultant, having spent five years at A. T. Kearney, advising and leading on IT Outsourcing and operational efficiency solutions across a broad range of sectors.
He is a graduate of Manchester University, Electronics and Electrical Engineering, FIET, holds a Dip. Law from City University and completed his Bar Finals in 1995. He is the former Chair of the City of London Citizen's Advice Bureau and Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists.
He is married, with one son, and lives in Islington. Outside of work, his interests include music, and writing screenplays.