Part of the work I do is to help implement risk-based decision making in respect of major capital assets for the water industry – contact me if you really want to know what this is about – and every time I think about the work we do here it leads me to the need to explore how ‘we’ approach risk in our lives and how that might affect our management and leadership practice.
Now, there are loads of articles and books written about the mechanics of Risk Management – this is not another one, this is about how we mis-perceive risks and the potential consequences of that. So let’s ask a few questions:
Would you rather have a nuclear power station in your back yard or a beehive?
The nuclear power station please. There is NO authenticated record of a ‘civilian’ dying as a consequence of the proper operation of a nuclear power station, yet (in the US – I can’t readily find UK figures) around 50 deaths per year are attributable to bee stings! I haven’t done the maths, but I suspect that eve after accounting for the extra deaths caused y the accidents at 3 Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima you had better avoid beehives!
What are your odds, if you buy a single ticket, of your 6 numbers being drawn in the National Lottery? And would you prefer these odds to those of being killed by lightning?
Well, in a typical year 3 people get killed by lightning in the UK, so if we average that to a weekly basis (to enable comparison with the weekly lottery), the chances of being killed by lightning in a typical week (assuming a UK population of 60 million) are 1:385,000. Better put your £ on a random person you know being killed because the odds of your numbers coming up are 36 times less likely!
OK, so these are extreme examples, yet they do illustrate how poor many people are at knowing the risks we face in our daily lives. So how good do you think you are at estimating the risks you face in your daily decision making at work?
Health and Safety is the classic arena – it’s one of the few areas where, by statute, we are required to make risk-based decisions. Yet it is also one of the fields of greatest weirdness. How many times have you heard “We can’t do that because we might kill someone”? Well, how likely is it that someone gets killed at work? You might like to look here for the answer…and you might be surprised that you are probably more likely to be killed going to or from work that actually at work (according to the DoT road deaths currently run at ca 2000 per year) or indeed at your home!
Now, let’s come right down the scale of seriousness. How many systems do you know of, or have you even put in place, that are there ‘just in case’? And did you estimate (accurately, now) the chances of the event happening and of course the consequences of the failure if it did happen? And was the cost of the system/process higher or lower than your consequence estimate? I will admit to having been a bit of a radical when I had a ‘real’ job (actually, I was paid to be so) and a favourite trick was to stop doing things that I or my team didn’t think were worth while – it was amazing how few got resurrected.
So, this little rant was really a challenge to you to think more rationally about the risks you face in your work (and/or life), so that you can make better informed decisions. What examples have you got of weird decisions made on the basis of totally unrealistic risks?