It was almost midnight. Our 3-hour trip from Budapest through Frankfurt to Milan was now a 10-hour adventure. Our bags were coming off the luggage carousel completely soaked. My eyes were dry and uncomfortable. And, I realized I ignored the fundamentals of risk management.
At its core, risk management should be simple:
- On a regular basis, review and identify new threats and opportunities;
- Assess the risks based on the likelihood of occurrence and their potential impact;
- Develop a response strategy to mitigate the impact of the risk or enhance the opportunity; and
- Make contingency plans to alleviate the threat should it become a reality.
As I evaluated this portion of our trip, I realize my wife and I made common risk management mistakes.
Failure to Fully Plan for Risk
We carefully planned certain aspects of our trip. We built our itinerary leaving time for both family visits and touring. Since we used Airbnb® for the first time, we thoroughly vetted our hosts. As the trip began, we felt well prepared.
However, we fell into the trap of selective risk planning:
- We did not follow a process for managing our risks. We focused on certain events based on their perceived threat instead of thoughtful assessment;
- Our planning was biased. We focused on high impact events and ignored common ones. For example, we spent effort researching our Airbnb hosts without considering the weather; and
- We did not adequately consider common events, like bad weather, that had the potential of being disruptive.
One way to avoid these mistakes is to develop a risk-planning checklist. The checklist can be built over time or established as an enterprise template. The checklist should be comprehensive and include both common and unlikely events. A well-developed checklist could also include successful response strategy suggestions.
Failure to Take Ordinary Precautions
I wear contact lenses. Normally, I pack a case, solution, and my spectacles in my carry-on bag so I can remove my contacts. When we flew from the US to Europe, I took this precaution. However since Budapest to Milan was just a hop, I packed all of my toiletries in my checked suitcase.
I failed to take an ordinary precaution. Why? Maybe I was being lazy or just not thinking. Maybe I just didn’t adequately assess the situation. Regardless, we often fail to take routine safeguards for a variety of reasons.
To avoid this mistake, project managers should remain vigilant and stick to standard practices. Mature organizations develop standard, repeatable processes to ensure consistent outcomes. Standard procedures are often tedious, but they can also avert mistakes.
Failure to Respond to New Information
When we got to the airport in Budapest, our flight to Frankfurt was already delayed by a half-hour due to bad weather in Germany. We had a short layover in Frankfurt and this made our change nearly impossible. Instead of making contingency plans and then researching flights from Frankfurt to Milan, we sat at the café.
We had new information (flight was delayed), but failed to act on this new information (identify alternatives). The failure to react to new information is common. Sometimes, we ignore risks that are not identified through formal processes. Other times, we sweep aside risks if we are in the heat of project execution.
To avoid this trap, the team should regularly review new information and assess its impact. Has a new risk been identified? Does the information change the likelihood or impact of a current risk? Does an existing response plan need to be modified?
Failure to Update Frame of Reference
When we were rebooking our flight to Milan, I was very concerned that our bags would be on a different flight. The service representative informed me that under security guidelines, which have been in place for years, luggage had to be on the same plane as the passenger.
Sometimes teams fail to update their frame of reference or prior assumptions. This can happen when procedures or guidelines change, or when the team is in unchartered waters. It happens.
To ensure the team is making decisions using the right information:
- Be clear to differentiate between known facts, assumptions, and guesses;
- Take time to research assumptions. Don’t let uncertain information become the foundation for an important decision; and
- Actively document operating assumptions and periodically review them to ensure that they are still valid or need to be updated.
Counting on Luck
We were greeted in Milan with a downpour. There were puddles on the luggage carousel from the soaking wet bags. I used the old trick of shrink-wrapping my clothing in Zip Lock bags® to pack more compactly. Consequently, most of my belongings were dry and only the items I threw in at the last moment were wet.
Sometimes we count on luck to be successful. Or, we take credit for happenstance and label it as good planning. We cannot consider all events. There are always firsts or very low probability events that happen. We can transform these experiences into learning opportunities. Add them to your risk checklist. Consider how you would respond to the event in the future.
Being mindful of risks—both opportunities and threats—is the key to good risk management. On this trip, we mitigated some risks, accepted others, and ignored the weather. We were lucky. The forecast called for rain almost every day. We only had rain on our one travel day. It was a great trip.