The Alamo as… Risk Management?

One hundred and eighty-three years ago men in San Antonio, some inside the walls of the Alamo and some outside, closed their eyes for the last time. The following morning the Mexican Army launched an attack that ended the 13-day siege, wiping out all 200 combatant defenders and nearly 600 of the attackers. Many stories are told about the Alamo, the people on either side of the wall, and what leadership lessons we might draw from the whole saga. One compelling way to look at the siege and fall of the Alamo is as a failure in risk management.

My favorite risk management model isn’t a risk management model at all. In Great by Choice Jim Collins examines the role luck plays in propelling organizations from good to great. Worded differently, he is essentially examining how great organizations methodically seize opportunities while managing their risk.

Collins says, “The critical question is not ‘Are you lucky?’ but ‘Do you get a high return on luck?’” He poses a few questions that organizations should ask themselves when facing an opportunity, a moment of “luck,” or a decision:

  • Can this kill us?
  • Is the downside greater than the upside?
  • Can we make a small test before committing more significant resources?
  • Will we lose control of this situation?
  • How much time until the risk profile changes?

Perhaps most critically, Collins cautions, “The only mistakes you can learn from are the ones you survive.”

This set of questions might have saved the 200 defenders from getting into the Alamo, and the Mexican Army from wasting 13 days trying to take over a 3-acre adobe fort in the middle of a state of 172 million acres. Ultimately, these failures in risk management doomed men on both sides of the conflict.

How do you evaluative potentially “lucky” opportunities? Is there something to be learned from the application of Collins’ model to the saga of the Alamo?

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