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Earthquake highlights importance of continuous risk assessment

We were sitting in a conference room on Tuesday reviewing our surveying program when an unusual sensation moved through the room. It seemed to sway and wobble slightly for a few seconds, a tremor strong enough to notice but slight enough for us to ask one another if we felt the same thing.

We went into the hall to see others stepping out of conference rooms and popping their heads out of cubicles like meerkats looking for signs of danger. Through the windows, groups of employees could be seen calmly leaving the building, so we took to our computers and handheld devices to see what had happened.

I'm sure you know by now that what we felt was the tail end of a 5.8-magnitude earthquake that hit some 250 miles away near Reston, Va. Citizens of the Greater Los Angeles area would probably find our reaction nearly comical, but for the Philadelphians who haven't felt it before, it was a unique experience.

The local news has been treating it like the breaking of the first seal, but despite the overreaction, their ratings have rarely been higher.

When I felt the first sensations, I immediately thought about what I've been told to do in case of earthquakes. Get to the door jamb, I thought. It's supposed to be the most structurally sound part of any construct.

Then I thought about how rarely you see intact door jambs poking out of the rubble in an earthquake's aftermath, and thought that maybe the evacuating employees had the right idea.

Either way, I was not adequately prepared for the risk of an earthquake, which got me thinking about risk with our projects and customers. Just how prepared am I for other unforeseen situations?

As a project manager, I've always looked at risk at the beginning of a project to determine appropriate actions. This same philosophy is true for areas for which we are responsible for hiring personnel. The challenge is ensuring that the risk assessment is a continuous process. I've detailed below some basic steps for risk management, and some suggestions on how to make it a continuous process.

Risk identification. My sons and I are fans of the British TV program "Top Gear." In it, the hosts are given weekly challenges requiring them to obtain or re-purpose a vehicle to achieve a specific goal.

An ongoing joke on the show occurs when they describe their plan and ask, "What could possibly go wrong?" The other hosts will reprimand the first, since asking that question will guarantee some sort of unexpected obstacle.

For risk identification, we have to keep asking ourselves that same question. In projects, we focus on missing deadlines or lacking key resources. For recruiting, it might be questions like:

    • What if we have a sudden need for a particular skill set?

    • How easy would it be to replace these key roles?

    • What if we lose part of our recruiting staff?

    • What if key sources of local talent moved their operations elsewhere?

Be sure not to do this in a bubble. Invite your team and those you support to participate in making the list more comprehensive. Playing out these scenarios allows you to prepare for unexpected changes, and might also generate new ideas on how to improve your current service.

Risk assessment. Once you have determined your risks, you will want to determine how to prioritize the list. Rate the list based on two criteria: impact and likelihood. Using this grading system will help you prioritize and determine likely responses.

Risk preparation. With a prioritized list of risks, you can assess the high priority items and determine the ways in which you will deal with the conditions. Keep focused on how you can avoid the risks altogether, but also on how you will mitigate the impact of the risk.

The key to this is having a realistic plan for addressing the conditions that might occur. Again, get support from other teams on your solutions to ensure that they address the issue, and to gain their tacit support in case the worst happens.

Continually revisit. This is the part with which most of us struggle, and that was literally shaken into my awareness. In projects, revisiting the risk assessment can be critical because there are many moving parts.

Also, when milestones are achieved, the list of risks can be impacted and hopefully shortened. For operational situations, risks should be reviewed at least annually to determine if they are still likely to occur, and if additional risks should be added to the list.

British businessman Sir John Harvey-Jones once wrote that "the nicest thing about not planning is that failure comes as a complete surprise, rather than being preceded by a period of worry and desperation."

While this tongue-in-cheek philosophy can offer some solace to the ill-prepared, it is better to have a plan in place so that if the worst happens, you and your team will know whether to head for the door jamb, or out the door.

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