Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

July 29, 2010

Tara: The bodhisattva of risk management

Filed under: Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on July 29, 2010

Tara is a helpful mnemonic for transfer, avoid, reduce, accept: the principal risk management options.

Years ago oil consumers, oil producers, policy-makers, and industry regulators decided the need for oil — and our understanding of the risks — was sufficient to no longer avoid the risks associated with ultra-deep water drilling. 

But in several subsequent decisions related to the Deepwater Horizon platform, BP and its financial and management partners accepted more risk than they fully realized.  Applying the Cynefin framework (below), they almost certainly mistook profound complexity as being merely complicated.  In a few benighted instances they may even have been deluded into thinking their task was simple.  (Please see Chris Bellavita’s Tuesday post for more on the Cynefin framework.  Chris has also written a related piece in the Homeland Security Affairs Journal.)

Because of this failure to accurately assess context, BP and others — including regulators —  accepted (or, more accurately, transferred) more risk than consciously intended.  Regulators did not require lease-holders to give specific attention to catastrophic risk, did not effectively enforce the limited risk readiness included in lease provisions, and failed to ensure that risk readiness involved active participation, collaboration, and deliberation by key stakeholders. Minimal action was taken to reduce risk.  There was a paucity of sense-making, a lack of full awareness, and a dangerously myopic view of reality.

In a complex situation the Cynefin framework advocates a process of probing, sensing, and responding.  This probing is similar to Elinor Ostrom’s participation/collaboration/deliberation.  The emerging evidence suggests that even among those physically proximate on the Deepwater Horizon probing and sensing were constrained.  No wonder we were not prepared to respond.

Once the latent complexity of the situation was exposed through death, injury, and destruction, there is a question as to whether BP and others recognized the transition from complexity to chaos.  In any case, because they (we) had not fully engaged the complexity of the context, they (we) were not ready to act, sense, and respond  to the chaos.  We  were ill-prepared to manage the risk we had unthinkingly accepted.

Once BP, the Coast Guard, the White House and all of us recognized the unfolding chaos we began to behave more realistically.  As we behaved in a manner better calibrated to reality we recognized some aspects of our situation as simple, some as complicated, some as complex, and some as chaotic.  Depending on the reality of the context, many of us — perhaps even most of us — eventually behaved appropriately to the context.

But that “eventually” allowed millions of gallons of toxic oil to gush for over eighty days.  In our decisions, non-decisions, and especially in our unintentional obliviousness  we essentially transferred the risk of ultra-deepwater drilling to the ecology and economy of the Gulf of Mexico… and to those creatures — human and not — who are  especially in relationship with the Gulf.

Intellectual and operational frameworks, such as Tara and Cynefin,  are helpful.  But all of them depend on the users’ ability to engage reality.  Every framework I know depends on adapting appropriately to context.  The user must be attentive.

In Buddhism and Hinduism Tara is also a manifestation of compassion.  There are several aspects of Tara.  The Green Tara shown below is especially associated with liberation from fear and protection from material threats.  Tara is widely understood to be particularly effective in helping us avoid accidents.

Many Tibetan Buddhists begin each day reciting a mantra to Tara: Om Tara tuttare ture svaha.  There is a deeper meaning, but very roughly this can be understood as,  “O thee who saves, free me from greed, hatred and delusion, deepen my relationships with others.  May I be as thee.”

Greed, hatred, and delusion are recurring impediments to a full understanding of reality.  Failing to recognize our relationships with others will undo the most excellent management protocols.

What both forms of Tara suggest is the ongoing responsibility we have to engage with others to be attentive, to understand reality as best we can, to honor our relationships with one another and our environment, and to shape our behavior to reduce the risks of mindlessness.  

How any of us gin up the discipline and persistence for this is a personal issue. Whether it is a four-part risk management regime — or a framework inspired by Welsh wisdom, or an ancient Tibetan mantra, or a spectral vision of Peter Drucker floating above our bed — doesn’t matter as much as arising each morning ready to give attention, be in relationship, and take responsibility for our behavior.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

July 29, 2010 @ 6:28 am

Perhaps the Hindu God Ganeesh more appropriate. BP the elephant standing precariousy on top of US rats. Or is it different all together-perhaps the difference between science and engineering. Science constantly being forced to recognize it lack of understanding by the scientific method. Engineers driven by the “good enough” philosophy! Add the BP catastrophe to the top 20 engineering failures of all time.

Comment by Mark Chubb

July 29, 2010 @ 1:25 pm

The TARA risk management prescription bears a strong resemblance to the sort of religious practices that predominate in the west. We express our faith by following a prescribed set of rituals in the expectation that they will bestow grace upon us. As illustrated by your analogy with Hindu and Buddhist religious practices associated with devotions to the Goddess Tara, eastern cultures have a different understanding of human-beings’ relationships with the divine and the benefits these bestow.

Last week, we discussed the importance of combining and balancing faith and reason. This discussion extends this discussion and characterizes this combination as mindfulness rather than the sorts of mindless practices that accompany much of what passes for risk management practice.

Risk management seeks to understand and control the impact of the uncertain. But as you point out, the uncertain is not the same as the unknowable. Appreciating the difference requires us to reconcile ourselves with the ways in which we mislead and delude ourselves when our desires (including faith, insofar as it represents an attachment to a deity or a particular conception of the divine) overwhelm our appreciation of the limitations of our models and methods.

Comment by John Comiskey

August 1, 2010 @ 1:57 pm


TARA is great stuff and should be used elsewhere.

I accept Mark’s observation that we delude ourselves with our desires. In this instance, we as a society want cheap energy and it happens that fossil fuel provide a great deal of it. What to do? Didn’t we as a government and international community know much of this i.e. the risks, prior to the Great Spill of 2010. Deepwater Horizon is not a lesson not learned ….it is a lesson ignored. Maybe it was simply business pragmatism; low risk venture with high returns. It remains pragmatic until something “big” goes wrong. It seems too easy to blame the risk takers now without accepting part of the blame ourselves. (Much of the blame remains with BP).

It is likely that another major commission will be impaneled that will make numerous recommendations that will hastily be legislated in whole or part. The off shore oil industry will be regulated and things will get a little better. Exxon Valdez and the subsequent Oil Pollution Act of 1990 worked out well.

I’m ready to move on from DWH. What I would like to see is TARA used for future homeland security challenges and particularly cyber threats. Maybe we as a government and international community can prevent some bad things from happening.

We should start today!

Better that then a blog some time from now that details the failure of a major network and catastrophic consequences.

Comment by dan o'connor

August 1, 2010 @ 4:21 pm

Perhaps a bit of irony here, but TARA (transfer, avoid, reduce, accept) has similar themes as the grief cycle; denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

August 2, 2010 @ 6:07 am

I like John’s suggestion that we become more prospective in the application of our thinking. We look to the past primarily to increase our wisdom for today and tomorrow.

Cyber is not a particular expertise of mine, but I agree it deserves whatever attention we can give.

Pending some externality, Thursday I will work to apply Tara to what the Cynefin framework describes as chaos. Despite my lack of expertise, I will try to do this with a cyber scenario as part of the mix.

Pingback by Homeland Security Watch » Food security: Do economies of scale suppress risk resilience?

August 5, 2010 @ 4:11 am

[…] Note:  Last week John Comiskey encouraged me to apply Cynefin and/or Tara to a prospective problem.  He suggested a cyber threat.  I decided to focus on a network — […]

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