What is Risk? Understanding Business Risks in 2023


For anyone owning, leading or managing a business, it is critical to understand the concept of risk. This article explores the different types of risk that businesses face daily, with the aim of giving you a thorough understanding of what "risk" means in a business context. We discuss financial, operational, strategic, hazard, legal and compliance, and varioius other risks, most of which are likely to apply to your business - regardless of its Industry.

Image of two pictures depicting risk and how it's defined. Caption reads "What is Risk?" Blaze Business & Legal Logo. Define Risk.

What is risk?

Definition of Risk (how we define "risk")

In the business context, "risk" refers to the chance of one or more different events occurring and having a negative impact on your business. There are a number of variables to consider when assessing risk, including:

  • the likelihood of an event occurring
  • the possible effect that an event may have on your business
  • whether the risk event can be managed, mitigated or insured against. 

It is important to understand these variables in order to place yourself and your business in the best place possible to deal with potential risks. 

Characteristics of a Risk

It is essential to understand the main characteristics of a risk in order to put in place a solid Risk Management Strategy.

Here are the primary characteristics of a risk:

1. Uncertainty - Risk involves uncertainty, meaning there is a lack of certainty about the outcomes. It is not guaranteed that a risk event will take place, nor that a loss, cost, expense or damage will occur if the business suffers from an event of risk. But there is a possibility of adverse events happening, and because of that, these adverse events need to be addressed by the business in order to ensure it is protected.

2. Variability of Outcomes - Risk brings with it a range of possible outcomes, not just negative ones. It can lead to both gains and losses, depending on various factors such as how the risk is managed. Having said this, the main risks we always need to consider are the negative ones - the risks that will possibly cause problems for your business if the risk event occurs.

3. Potential for Loss - Risk inherently carries with it the potential for loss. This loss could be financial, but it could also involve other types of loss such as reputational damage, loss of time, or loss of opportunities. As part of analysing risks for the business, the potential for loss, cost, expense, damage, liability or claims arising from the risk event need to be assessed.

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4. Measurability - Risks can often be measured and quantified, at least to some extent. This is often the place where you see Risk Advisors assigning "High," "Medium," or "Low" to a particular risk. The people analysing the risk are working out how likely the risk is to occurr, and seperately, the likelihood that your business will suffer loss due to that event of risk. Businesses frequently use statistical and analytical tools to assess the potential impact of various risks.

5. Time Frame - Risks usually occur within a specific time frame. Understanding the time horizon of a risk is essential in determining the appropriate strategies to manage it. For example, when you are establishing a new factory, you will have risks relating to construction works, delay, and defects. However, the time frame of these risks is known - they will end after construction is completed, practical completion has been certified, and the Certificate of Final Completion for the works has been issued. After that time, the risks to be analysed and assessed will be those relating to an operating factory.

6. Connection to Decision Making - Risks are intrinsically tied to decisions made in the business. Every business decision carries certain risks, and understanding these can help in making informed choices. Once a particular decision is made, the risks associated with other decisions can be removed from consideration, allowing you to narrow your focus to only those risks associated with moving forwards down the relevant path chosen by the decision-maker.

7. Influence on Business Objectives - Risks can have a direct influence on the objectives of a business. They can either hinder or facilitate the achievement of business goals, depending on how they are managed. Where a too-cautious approach is taken to risk management, the business may be stopped from moving forwards. Where risks are not taken seriously, the business may be negatively impacted by certain risks that were not properly managed or mitigated against, and this may cost the business significantly.

8. Pervasiveness - Risks are pervasive, affecting various aspects of the business, from operations and finance to strategy and reputation. You will see this as you review our discussion below about the different types of risks that usually arise in a business.

Understanding the above characteristics of risk can help business owners, leaders and managers in identifying, assessing, and managing risks more effectively. This may then allow the business to turn potential threats and scary possibilities into opportunities for growth.

Common Risks Faced by Businesses in Australia

This section outlines the common risks that businesses in Australia may encounter, including financial, operational, strategic, hazard, and legal and compliance risks.

Australian businesses also face a range of other risks including market fluctuations that affect financial stability, supply chain disruptions that pose operational challenges, strategic errors leading to competitive disadvantages, natural disasters and hazard risks, and regulatory changes that may result in legal and compliance risks.

Case Study – Woolworths and the Risks it Navigated

In this post, we talk about the journey of Woolworths, the Australian retail giant. 

In the early 2000s, Woolworths ventured into the home improvement sector, a move outside its core competency. Despite a well-planned strategy, the venture encountered operational and strategic risks, leading to its exit from the sector in 2016. This case study highlights the complex nature of risk, showcasing both the opportunities and pitfalls it can present, even to some of the biggest players in the market.

Image of Masters Home Improvement Logo - What is Risk?

Unpacking the Concept of Risk

For instance, Woolworths navigated through unforeseen challenges in the home improvement sector, facing uncertainty.

The Dual Nature of Risk: Threat and Opportunity

Risk has a dual nature, representing both a threat and an opportunity. It can create obstacles in achieving business objectives and also foster unprecedented opportunities, encouraging innovation and growth.

Despite setbacks, Woolworths leveraged the experience to hone its strategies and concentrate on its strengths, illustrating the opportunity facet of risk.

Section 3 – Types of Risks

Financial Risks

Financial risks relate to uncertainties in the financial market, including market risks involving fluctuations in market variables like interest rates, credit risks concerning potential borrower defaults, and liquidity risks referring to the inability to quickly execute transactions without substantial price changes. Woolworths faced financial risks, including significant investments that did not meet expected returns.

Operational Risks

Operational risks pertain to uncertainties in a business's daily operations, encompassing supply chain disruptions, inefficiencies in business processes, and human-related factors such as employee misconduct. Woolworths experienced operational risks, including disruptions and inefficiencies in the new venture.

Strategic Risks

Strategic risks are connected to the overarching strategies businesses adopt. These involve competition risks related to the industry's competitive landscape, reputational risks associated with market perception, and regulatory risks involving changes in regulations affecting business operations. Woolworths faced strategic risks, including reputational damage following the home improvement sector challenges.

Hazard Risks

Hazard risks stem from natural disasters and unforeseen events. In Australia, this includes preparation for bushfires and floods, integral to the country's environmental landscape. While Woolworths has not faced significant hazard risks, it remains a vital consideration in the Australian business landscape.

Legal and Compliance Risks

These risks involve the repercussions of not adhering to the legal and compliance norms in the Australian business landscape. It is vital to understand these norms to avoid penalties and sustain a good reputation. Woolworths, a substantial entity, continually navigates legal and compliance risks in its operations.

Section 4 – Additional Risks

Cyber Attacks and Data Breaches

The surge in cyber risks tops the list of current and predicted future risks both in Australia and globally, with the 2020 ransomware explosion affecting numerous Australian businesses. It is imperative for businesses to be prepared for cyber risks and have mitigation strategies in place.

Reputation and Brand Damage

In the context of the global COVID-19 pandemic, there is heightened awareness of reputation and brand damage. Reputational crises can significantly affect a company’s future, emphasizing the necessity to maintain a good reputation and brand image in the Australian business landscape.

Innovation and Meeting Customer Needs

Failure to innovate and meet customer needs ranks high in the list of current and future risks. Businesses must be agile and adapt swiftly to changing market conditions and customer preferences.

Business Interruption

The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated that business interruption has evolved from a linear risk to one affecting multiple industries and companies globally. Businesses need strategies to manage business interruptions effectively.

Economic Slowdown and Slow Recovery

Australia faced economic challenges, including its first recession in 30 years and the impact of unprecedented lockdowns and closed borders. Being prepared for economic slowdowns and having strategies for slow recovery periods are crucial.

Increasing Competition

The business landscape is witnessing increasing competition, ranking as a top current and future risk. Businesses must stay competitive by innovating and adapting to changing market conditions.

Pandemic Risk and Health Crises

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted businesses and magnified other risks, necessitating preparedness for health crises and strategies to manage associated risks.

Regulatory and Legislative Changes

Businesses face challenges navigating through regulatory and legislative changes, highlighting the importance of awareness and compliance with regulatory and legislative norms in Australia.

Cash Flow and Liquidity Risk

Managing cash flow and liquidity risks effectively is vital, emphasizing the importance of strategies to manage these risks effectively.


Understanding the multifaceted nature of risk is a constant in the business environment. Grasping its various dimensions can empower Australian business owners to adeptly navigate it, transforming potential threats into opportunities for growth. Woolworths’ journey through the risk landscape offers invaluable insights into the practical application of risk concepts, illustrating the crucial role of understanding risk in business strategy.

Additional Resources

For further reading and understanding, refer to the following books and contact the listed Australian Risk Advisory Bodies:

  • "The Essentials of Risk Management" by Michel Crouhy, Dan Galai, and Robert Mark
  • "Risk Management: Concepts and Guidance, Fifth Edition" by Carl L. Pritchard

Contact Details for Australian Risk Advisory Bodies

  • Risk Management Institution of Australasia (RMIA)
  • Australian Risk Policy Institute (ARPI)

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About the Author

Rachelle Hare

Rachelle Hare

Rachelle Hare is a highly experienced Construction Lawyer and Contract Lawyer, with over 23 years of experience in Tier 1 and Tier 2 Construction Firms, Top Tier Private Practice and Government.

With 23+ years of experience as a Senior Lawyer, Strategic Contracting Adviser and Management Consultant in Construction Law, Contracts, Major Projects, Commercial Advisory, Compliance, Procurement, Contract Management and Risk Management, Rachelle has the rare skills to offer you seamless business advice and legal advice to help support your organisation.

As well as a Lawyer and Business Adviser, Rachelle has also acted as a Strategic Procurement Adviser, Compliance Manager, Strategic Risk Adviser and Commercial Manager.

Rachelle owns
Blaze Business & Legal, a combined Commercial Law Firm and Business Advisory Firm located in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia. Blaze Business & Legal assists a broad range of clients in the Construction Industry and related industries, and advises owners, contractors, subcontractors, NFPs and other organisations on a broad range of Construction Law, Commercial Law, Business Advisory and Management Consulting issues in Brisbane, Queensland and around Australia.

Rachelle also owns Blaze Professional Learning, where she offers practical contracting skills, hands-on experience in drafting and working with contracts, and industry insights to help Professionals upskill and advance their careers with real-world skills.

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