Risk: A User’s Guide

  • Published

Risk: A User’s Guide by Stanley A. McChrystal and Anne Butrico. Penguin Books, 2021, 368 pp. 

Having spent the better part of the latter half of my 30-year Air Force career as a strategist, and being a fan of retired General Stanley A. McChrystal’s postmilitary transition and work, I was excited to see the title of this book as it was coming out.

Risk: A User’s Guide, as a component of strategy and strategic planning, is vital as it reconciles the ever-expensive requirements and appetites an organization has with the budgetary reality of its coffers. Yet, at a deeper level, the understanding of risk and science of “buying it down” through the art of the numerous and methodical approaches outlined in this user’s guide will go a long way in conserving precious resources—whether they be people or monetary or other; as well as reducing, mitigating, or eliminating surprise and concern from the planning equation.

Risk is the perfect topic to discuss right now in these times we all find ourselves. As McChrystal and co-author associate Anne Butrico note early on in the work, they wrote Risk during the pandemic when the world was fumbling with what to do about it, mitigate its spread, develop a vaccine, and respond to myriad other cascading events. Admittedly, McChrystal notes, after a military career in combat dealing with risks, many would think he has mastered the subject, yet just the opposite is true. The more he faced risk and dealt with it, in addition to observing how others dealt with similar risk under roughly similar circumstances, it struck him how so many divergent approaches were taken to deal with them—and it intrigued him.

Thus, he set about to understand it to manage it better. Risk is not really a work on different types of risk—he qualifies—but an explanation of “the factors by which we can strengthen our ability to respond to risk, and how we can turn the dials up and down to make our responses more effective” (xix). And while McChrystal could have simply catalogued and cast his military experiences throughout the entirety of the book (which might have been a bit self-incriminating in some circumstances), they constitute but a small portion. A big strength of the book is that it covers examples across military, government, civil society, and business—ensuring a broad and appealing applicability to numerous audiences. His thesis is tackled in three parts.

Part one constructs a paradigm around a concept he describes as a risk immune system. Part two builds on this foundation by introducing 10 risk control factors (communication, narrative, structure, technology, diversity, bias, action, timing, adaptability, and leadership) “in identifying, analyzing, and ultimately controlling risk” (xxi). Part three takes these factors and offers proven tools and exercises through plausible scenarios with a fictitious airline—FlyVA—to tease out the germane takeaways. This is another strength of the book in that rather than telling stories and providing tools; the reader can visualize through the various scenarios how those tools are used, which is something of great comfort to those unaccustomed to really managing and dealing with risk.

One of the aspects of this book that makes it a page-turner you will not want to put down is the breadth and variety of stories and how they are woven into the DNA of the thesis. For example, not only does McChrystal draw examples from Pearl Harbor, the 9/11 attacks, and COVID 19, he also talks about Apple, the Alamo, Boston’s Big Dig, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Google, Hurricane Katrina, Microsoft, pandemics writ large, Operation Eagle Claw, Overstock.com, Ponzi schemes, China, Russia, Greta Thunberg, the World Wars, military services, and of course, special operations—just to name a handful! With uncanny pertinence, McChrystal weaves many of these topics throughout, applying the various tools to them in different circumstances such that the reader can evaluate them through multiple lenses.

Ultimately, in this reviewer’s humble estimation, he supports the thesis. McChrystal narrowly defines his task and delivers a readable and practical guide for all to better understand and deal with risk. Buying down and understanding this risk, whether it be when lives are at stake, profit and loss is on the line, or organizational reputation hangs in the balance, the authors show readers that despite the greatest risk to us, if we must understand the inputs and factors inherent in a given situation. Then we can apply tools and measures and not be surprised by outcomes we wish to avoid but can roll with them because of sufficiently adept planning and forethought.

But there is a big elephant in the room that is neither addressed in this book, nor considered in passing. And so, for all readers who should consider the context for reading a book should first reflect on the credibility the author has for writing it. The elephant is the author’s own error of developing and signing off on an unrealistic strategy for Afghanistan that flew in the face of certainty his troops faced on the ground. Risk, and a bit of hubris, conspired to create battlefield outcomes that led to the deaths of the likes of Pat Tillman. But of greater unmention are the colossal strategic shortcomings leading to the unfortunate deaths of numerous civilians—some even bordering on war crimes.

As well, the book is chock full of platitudinous bromides sprinkled liberally throughout, diluting the meaning behind many exceptional suggestions and useful tools. Readers see right through this filler. Still, if these kinds of issues do not knock your conscience, and you can separate them from the pure content of the book, I think you will find it most useful. No stone has really been left unturned in that pursuit.

Yet, I am still troubled a bit in that as a commander at the highest levels, he personally risked nothing while enabling stalemate at best on the battlefield, if not contributing to losses on a grand scale.

Brigadier General Chad T. Manske, USAF, Retired