150cc’s of Risk Management

“With great power comes great responsibility” (Spiderman’s Uncle Ben).  Great power and responsibility means taking risks.  Turning risks into success requires awareness, acceptance, and management.

What inspired this great wisdom, you ask?  My new scooter and the Motorcycle Safety Foundation.

My little 50cc Kymco scooter was the source of my first scooter inspired post, “50cc’s of Patience,” last June.  With my 50cc scooter, I was less concerned about risk and more aware of the gap between capacity and expectations.  My Kymco served me well, but a year of experience left me wanting and ready for a ride with more potential and staying power.  So my fun and economical two stroke chainsaw on wheels found a new happy home and I traded up to a 2010 Honda SH150i.

The Honda is 150cc’s of awesome power and efficiency (really!).  The new Honda scooter is faster and cleaner.  It’s fuel injected and has a catalytic converter.  It gets the same great 90 MPG as the Kymco and is dramatically cleaner per the EPA.  It cruises lazily at 40mph with speed to spare and easily totes my 150 pounds plus office backpack up the steepest of hills without strain.  It’s more steady and secure in the swirly winds of a busy arterial.  I love it.

But, just as I got over confident with the Kymco’s ability to max out at 40mph and suffered some engine push back, I could risk getting over confident with the easy speed and handling of the Honda.  I was warned of this when I first started riding.  Hearing about my scooter, friends’ responses were so consistent I thought I’d become Ralphie in “A Christmas Story” asking for a BB gun (“You’ll shoot your eye out!”)  I’d hear “Motorcycles are dangerous.”  “People don’t see you.”  “I used to do that but I don’t anymore.  It’s not safe.”    Clearly, my new power and responsibility required heightened risk management.  Fortunately, my motorcycle safety class covered the topic of risk with surprising sophistication.

The class, offered and well taught in my area by Puget Sound Safety, is based on the “Basic Motorcycle Course Rider Handbook” published by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation.  You can actually download this at the MSF website.

The MSF curriculum included a video that introduces you to the fun and satisfaction of safe motorcycle riding.  Quite a contrast to the gore and heartbreak of the bad driver training films from my 1960’s driver’s education classes.  The attractive and well outfitted video hosts not only looked good riding their motorcycles, they provided a compelling example of safe and competent motorcycle operation.  I liked the opportunity oriented first look at risk.

After that great warm-up, we moved into a concise and compelling risk management lesson.  It started on page 5 of the 54 page handbook right after cool pictures of the different types of motorcycles.   First things first.   The risk lesson has three parts:

  1. Risk Awareness
  2. Risk Acceptance
  3. Risk Management

Risk Awareness introduces all motorcycle riders to the concept of risk.  There are things that are not in our control that can have a big impact on us (no pun intended).  The impact is bigger than if we were in a car.  Seems obvious, but the important thing is that motorcycle riders stay constantly aware of this fact through the euphoria of their ride.  The section ends by pointing out that two things can help manage the risk: seeking excellence in our riding, and learning techniques that heighten our awareness to potential risks.

Risk Acceptance emphasizes the great responsibility that comes with our new power.  Remember Spiderman?  At first, Peter didn’t accept responsibility to use his power wisely.  The consequences haunted him in every issue.  The Rider’s Handbook asks us to think about how much risk we are willing to accept.  It illustrates this with a ladder asking us how high we are willing to climb.  The handbook suggests we all have different tolerances for risk, so before you climb on the bike you need to think about what can go wrong and balance that with what can go right.  If we only think about what can go wrong, we won’t ride or will limit our opportunities to grow as a rider.  If we only think about the thrill and power of riding (what can go right), we may not build our skills to identify, prepare for, and act to avoid risks.  Putting the Rider Handbook’s lesson in context with my philosophy, when we accept that there is risk we are balancing looking at what can go right with what can go wrong.  This helps us maximize our potential while minimizing possible negative consequences.

The risk acceptance section also introduces the crash chain.  After a brief case study resulting in a crash, it asks the rider to think about all the factors that led to the crash.  It wasn’t just one thing.  There were hazards, conditions of the road, capabilities of the rider and the bike, other motorists, and visibility to consider.  Some we can control, and some we can’t.  We have to accept that there are many things we have to be aware of to manage risk.

Risk Management is taking action to reduce risks by building skills and applying a strategy to use them.  MSF’s strategy has two parts.  First is to build a “safety margin.”  I see this as creating capacity to deal with uncertainty.  We do this by being aware of what can go wrong and building capacity to deal with it by investing in what can go right.  The safety margin has three parts:

  • Personal skills – knowing and staying within your skill; and building skills to increase the margin.
  • Motorcycle capability – knowing what your bike can and cannot do; and having a bike that matches how you plan to use it.
  • Time and space – creating the time and space you need to respond to what could go wrong; and adjusting it as conditions change.

The second part of MSF’s risk management strategy is “SEE.”  SEE is Search, Evaluate, and Execute.  SEE is ubiquitous throughout the rest of the course.  Our instructors remind us to SEE on the range with the other students; and it is part of learning about every riding skill and situation on the road.  Because we are subject to greater risks, we have to constantly search for the factors that could impact us, evaluate how they affect our margin of safety, and execute by taking action to maintain the margin of safety.

Maybe I think too much about projects and risks and the other side of risk.  The class wasn’t about projects, afterall.  But, I found the Motorcycle Safety Foundation’s treatment of risk to be an excellent addition to my understanding of how to look at risks on projects.  As project managers:

  • We have to be sure we understand risk awareness.  How do our stakeholders and participants perceive the project’s risks?  Are they imbued with power but not with responsibility?  Are they frozen with fear of what could go wrong?  Do they have a balanced view?
  • We have to explicitly accept the risks we face.  Whether we think about what can go right or wrong, each of these risks requires action and capacity.  How much are we willing to take on?  Is our capacity to deal with the risks we accept sufficient to be successful?
  • We have to have a strategy to manage risk appropriate to our environment.  Riding a motorcycle, risk management is a constant requirement.  The strategy is to be aware of our safety margin and SEE how it could change every second we are on the bike.  On our projects, we may not have to think about risks every second, but we do need to think about what can go right or wrong early enough to build capacity to deal with it, and often enough to be aware of changes in our environment.

So, next time you have a risk management meeting, wear your leather jacket, rev your engines with confidence, and SEE what’s possible.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright 2012 Glenn Briskin and “The Other Side of Risk”

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