Risk Management Metaphors

From Open Risk Manual

Risk Management Metaphors

Metaphors are frequently used (informally) as a mental framework to facilitate Risk Analysis. Their primary function is to highlight a key aspect of the situation that may be difficult to convey with more rigorous language.

Metaphors are only effective in a given cultural context, which means the more ubiquitous ones draw from universal human experiences. The following list captures some of the more frequently used ones (in Western culture)

Physical Phenomena Metaphors

Physical phenomena offer many useful metaphors for risk management as they are experienced more or less similarly across time and space. (Physical phenomena can obviously be a risk in themselves,

Periodic Phenomena

The periodicity of physical phenomena (Earth's rotation, the Moon induced tides) is frequently used as a metaphor for a loosely defined recurrence to the mean in human behavior.

Unfolding Non-Linear Phenomena

Weather patterns (gathering storm) are a key source of inspiration for describing dynamic development that is neither fully predictable nor completely random. Commonly observed phase transitions (boiling, freezing of water) are also in this category.

Abrupt Events

Large scale physical events that are more or less unpredictable and isolated in time (earthquakes, tsunamis and asteroid impact) form the basis for many event risk metaphors. The extreme non-linearity / unpredictability is here the focal aspect.

Tipping Points

The transition of a system away from a local equilibrium when pushed beyond a certain point

Animal Kingdom Metaphors

From cockroaches to ostriches, behaviors in the animal kingdom (usually interpreted in an anthropomorphic manner that may not be literally correct) are widely used. The advantage (compared to drawing from human experience / behavior) is that animal behavior is universal

Architectural Metaphors

Architectural metaphors build on the fact that erecting buildings for habitation or other use is universal and requires many explicitly design decisions that have impact on the usability of the construction

Domino Set

Indicates an architecture where various elements of the system may form a causal chain where impact propagates further than one might normally expect

House of Cards

Indicates an unstable configuration where the elements of the system are precariously connected, with the risk that any failure affects the entire system. The 'house of cards' metaphor is related to the domino set but implying a wider vulnerability (and possibly an awareness that the system is indeed structurally not fit)

Common Activity Metaphors

Activities that are (near) universal, such as house keeping or agriculture provide many useful metaphors. This class of metaphors is distinctly different from the previous ones, in that the involvement and impact (e.g Risk Mitigation of one or more agents is usually explicit or implied.

House Keeping

House keeping activities (e.g., time management, cleanliness, maintenance etc) are particularly useful as they accentuate the presence of an active Risk Manager who aims to optimize outcomes under uncertainty, allocate resources etc.


Similar to house keeping, agriculture being one of the longest organized cultural behaviors offers plenty of wisdom about the management of risks, anticipating weather uncertainty, diversifying, building buffers etc.

Urban Services

The development of cities with the increased need of risk management of dense human populations has given rise to organized patterns such as fire prevention and security. In turn those serve as readily understood models for organizing risk management in other areas.

Device Operation

Ubiquitous and potentially risky devices (such as the automobile) are particularly apt for capturing active risk management. From safety devices, to operator behavior and impact on bystanders, the analogies abound.


Games can be extremely good metaphors for "real life" behaviors (with mathematical wikipedia:Game Theory complicating the distinction between formal risk management tools and informal metaphors)

See Also