If You’re Not Confused, Try Harder

By Melanie Lockwood Herman

An NRMC Risk Assessment or ERM engagement typically centers on one-on-one conversations with individuals from our nonprofit clients. Conversations spark ideas, reveal challenges, and help us understand complex nonprofits through a variety of unique lenses. We’re eager to speak to newbies, veterans, optimists, worriers, dreamers, and everyone in between. Notes from recent conversations consume several hundred pages that we’re determined to distill, process, interpret and understand. Our approach as risk advisors is grounded in the belief that those conversations hold the seeds of the most promising solutions and strategies.

I thought of that belief as I finished reading Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future, by Margaret J. Wheatley. Unlike the many books I’ve read quickly and voraciously, I savored this book, picking it up every few days over the course of a month. I especially loved how Wheatley gently intersperses illustrative stories, insightful life lessons, and beautiful poetry, an unusual structure that led me to abandon my customary approach to reading.

Relish Confusion and Celebrate Being Wrong

In the chapter titled “Willing to Be Disturbed,” Wheatley writes that “We can’t be creative if we refuse to be confused. Change always starts with confusion; cherished interpretations must dissolve to make way for the new. Of course it’s scary to give up what we know, but the abyss is where newness lives.”

The discipline of risk management tries to make sense of inevitable confusion—to replace unproductive worry with productive action. My mentor Felix Kloman once told me “Risk management is a discipline for dealing with uncertainty.” The many possibilities that come to mind when we ponder risk wouldn’t exist if we knew what would happen next.

Yet many leaders still believe managing risk requires:

  • System installation
  • Strict adherence to rules and requirements
  • A standard framework
  • Uniform structures

At NRMC we’ve learned that candid conversations about “what if” and “what then” unearth the most creative approaches to risk. We believe conversations about risk help us understand and act on the risks we’re aware of and the blurry issues on the distant horizon. As we talk about what could, might, or probably won’t happen, we stumble upon ways to build resilience—to ensure that a nonprofit mission outlasts and grows stronger in the face of adversity.

During a recent conversation with a fellow CEO, we spoke about how reluctance to admit mistakes impairs risk understanding and management. Wheatley writes that “We weren’t trained to admit we don’t know. Most of us were taught to sound certain and confident, to state our opinion as if it were true. We haven’t been rewarded for being confused. Or for asking more questions rather than giving quick answers.” Before signing off, my colleague and I resolved to elevate our own mistakes and more consistently say, “I don’t know!”

Be Ever So Curious

Wheatley invites her reader to take notice of surprises, adding that “…when I notice what surprises me, I’m able to see my own views more clearly, including my beliefs and assumptions.”

As consultants, the NRMC team hears firsthand how people experience and perceive risk in their nonprofit organizations. We often describe those perspectives as puzzle pieces that we need to sort and pull together. In many engagements, some of the final interviews with staff and board members provide the missing pieces that help us see and understand important dynamics, challenges, and barriers to change that run through the nonprofit’s bloodstream.

Risk programs too often require us to talk about risk because we’re supposed to talk about risk. Conversations about risk are worthwhile if they inspire risk-taking, deepen resilience, or support thoughtful decisions that propel your mission.

If your conversations about risk don’t spark inspiration or action:

  • Talk to people you never talk to. When you need a different perspective on a challenge or opportunity, it helps to talk to someone new. Wheatley explains that “…if we want to change the conversation, we have to change who’s in the conversation.”
  • Spark hope. Many risk conversations begin with doom-inspired questions such as “What keeps you up at night?” Or “What could go wrong?” Put those aside and try: What exciting developments or circumstances would be a boon to our mission? How are we prepared for that level of success or impact?
  • Be fearless. Ask “If we weren’t afraid, what would we do to advance our mission?” and “What simple steps can we take to act with the boldness our mission deserves?”

Three stanzas from Wheatley’s poem titled “Turning to One Another,” beautifully capture the trifecta of conversation, connections, and curiosity:

Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters.

Talk to people you know.

Talk to people you don’t know.

Talk to people you never talk to.

Be intrigued by the differences you hear.

Expect to be surprised.

Treasure curiosity more than certainty.

Invite in everybody who cares to work on what’s possible.

Acknowledge that everyone is an expert about something.

Know that creative solutions come from new connections.


When I read the final stanza, I wondered if Wheatley is secretly a risk manager! Great risk leaders know they (and their peers in the executive suite) will never have all the answers. A successful risk management program acknowledges that everyone in an organization brings unique expertise when it comes to identifying and assessing risk. Through meaningful conversation, connections, and curiosity, your team can find and leverage possibilities—together.

Melanie Lockwood Herman is Executive Director of the Nonprofit Risk Management Center. She welcomes your thoughts about the roles of conversations, connections, and curiosity in risk practice at Melanie@nonprofitrisk.org or 703-777-3504.