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“The Prospect of Hanging Concentrates the Mind…” – Samuel Johnson

Avon Barksdale on Managing Risk, Part Two

Avon Barksdale, the drug kingpin from HBO’s “The Wire“, was a man of many precautions, because his life and his freedom depended on them. Managing his risks effectively kept him free and alive – and enabled him to build an empire that made him fabulously wealthy.

Do not ignore failure

Most of us can limit our potential risk effects to money lost or careers damaged and we make our risk management choices accordingly. Facing death or prison, it should not surprise that Mr Barksdale and his associates chose a very proactive approach to their risks.

Mistakes in Avon’s business were analyzed more than is usual most other places. There was the familiar search for the “guilty man”, and the punishments for poor performance were severe, but their next step was much more interesting.

Going beyond just putting a head on a stake

The Barksdale organization not only punished the guilty parties, they attempted to correct their own processes – and they tested the assumptions that formed the basis of their conclusions.

An armed robbery that resulted in a serious financial loss, for example, was analyzed to determine the security lapse that made it possible. It was also examined to find disloyal employees who may have helped make it possible. Finally, the conclusions of the analysis were double-checked to attempt to ensure the answer was correct.

Constant vigilance and a questioning of assumptions

The name of the show is a reference to the wiretaps that formed the backbone of the police efforts to stop Mr. Barksdale. The drug lord and his men were aware of the risk of being heard. While they had no specific proof that it was happening, they knew the potential effects were great.

They therefore managed the risk like any other. They attempted to reduce the risk of it occuring and mitigate the effects should it happen, all while accepting that a certain amount of phone use was unavoidable for them to run their business.

They correctly assumed that the police were trying to listen to them and acted accordingly. The gang frequently changed their procedures to protect themselves. Barksdale constantly challenged the assumption that their methods were sufficient and adapted them to reduce their exposure.

Not all textbooks are square – or thick

Avon Barksdale did an exemplary job of managing his risks, whatever his motivations or his ethics. The lessons his story holds are worth learning. If all textbooks were as engaging, we might actually learn a bit more in school.

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