Lessons in Risk Management

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Ryan Petersen, 375th Air Mobility Wing Safety Office

SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill -- If you are anything like me, when you hear the word ‘safety’, you likely have something that immediately comes to mind. When I was a child, being safe was following a ‘Walk, Don’t Run’ sign at the local pool. As I started driving, fastening my seat belt as I got into the car was my conscious contribution to being safe. As I transitioned into the military, I started relating safety with wearing a reflective belt (at night, and in periods of reduced visibility).

Looking back now, I realize my thoughts and priorities were set by strong influences in my life (parents, media, leadership, etc.). Lately, however, I find my thoughts of being ‘safe’ have transformed into a thought-process, which occurs with or without my focused concentration. Everyone processes hundreds of decisions each and every day.

Whether we are aware of these decisions or not, our mind is subconsciously ‘playing out the odds’ of choices A, B, or C; along with the most-probable outcome of that decision. What factors go into our subconscious decision-making has been customized and fine-tuned by previous experiences. In other words, everyone will inevitably have various and differing life experiences which will affect their decision-making process in everyday life.

While this decision-making happens without us having to focus on it, there is another, more deliberate, means of making decisions. Here is where the term ‘risk management’ comes into play. This is where we consciously over-rule or validate our initial decision (i.e. ‘gut feeling’). By deliberately focusing on the factors and details of the situation, we can obtain and execute a solution. It is important to realize that we cannot avoid all risk.

With proper planning, however, we have the ability to minimize the potential negative outcomes and identify the correct level for the risk to be accepted. This process does not always occur in this fashion, however, as even the most deliberately planned decisions do not turn out the way we had imagined. When this occurs, proactive or ‘deliberate’ risk management is replaced with reactive or ‘real-time’ risk management. During these real-time decisions, we make the best decision(s) possible with all the information available to us.

A great example is planning for an upcoming road trip. Reviewing the route beforehand with planned fuel stops, rest breaks and overnight hotel stays minimizes the decisions that need to be made during the trip. This pre-planning can be deliberate and thorough, with plenty of available resources to make informed decisions. Once the planning is complete and the trip begins, the real-time decision making begins. For example, if you experienced some delays before starting your trip and ended up driving into the night, it may be wise to change your planned stop.

This exact circumstance happened to me during a PCS across the country. I found myself driving into the evening and started to see a lot of wildlife along the road. Since I was in between good stopping points, I kept driving to the next major city. Along the way, a deer decided to jump in between the truck I was driving and the trailer behind it, pushing the trailer’s fender into the tire. My initial plan of stopping at 6 p.m. for dinner and checking into a hotel would have likely kept me from trying to pry a metal fender off a tire along the shoulder of the highway with a flashlight at 8 p.m. However, I stubbornly wanted to keep to my scheduled stops, despite a much later start than I had planned.

Lessons learned on my part:  Plan to the best of your ability, but don’t blindly follow your plan when changes occur. Constantly reassessing the best way ahead can keep you out of a bad situation, much more successfully than a large flashlight!