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Why Avoidance Should Be 1 of Your 7 Risk Responses
By Harry Hall

Earlier I wrote about seven ways to respond to risks. One of the risk responses is avoidance. The focus of this strategy is to ensure the risk does not occur…that is, we eliminate the cause of the risk.

My Personal Story of Stupidity

It was Fall, and I had raked leaves in my back yard into three piles. I was trying to decide what to do with them. I knew there was a ban on burning in my area. We had been extremely dry for months.

What were my options? I could bag the leaves. I could carry the leaves down into the woods…or I could burn the leaves.

I thought to myself – surely I could burn the leaves. No one will ever know. Later, I would soak the areas to ensure the fires were extinguished.

Before I went to bed, I checked the three areas again…no embers, no sparks, no smoke. Everything looked safe. I went to bed.

Next morning, I walked down the hall toward the kitchen for coffee. I looked out the window. What I saw next shocked me – fire as far as the eye could see. Yikes!

I am a southerner…I speak a bit slowly…most of the time. At this moment, I was talking and yelling at speeds I’ve never reached before, “There’s FIRE in the woods! Call the fire department! Call the fire department!”

My wife made the emergency call. My son and daughter jumped out of bed to help.

I grabbed some old towels and ran toward the fire. I attempted to beat down the fire in different areas. With every swipe, the fire would simply pop back up like magic. It was no use.

Meanwhile, my ten-year-old son took a water hose, continuously sprayed the back yard, and kept the fire from advancing toward the house.

Soon I heard the sirens. The fire department arrived. The forestry department arrived. The ambulance arrived. The neighbors arrived with tools in hand.

I have never been so embarrassed in my life! I wanted to run for cover, but there was nowhere to hide.

The fire department said the best strategy was to contain the fire with a fire break and let the fire burn out on its own. The forestry department cut a fire break around several acres. By this time, fire was up in the trees. It looked like a scene from the “Hunger Games: Catching Fire.”

After everyone had left, I went in for a shower. My wife heard someone knock at the door. It was the fire chief. He lit into her, “Ma’am, you must understand – your fire is not your fire…it’s everyone’s fire. This is why we have bans on fire when it’s dry.” He proceeded to let her know that the next time we violated the ban, there would be a stiff fine.

Lessons Learned

I am not proud of this story, but we live and we learn. Here are the lessons learned. These are lessons we can apply personally and professionally.

  • Avoidance may be your answer. I thought I could build a fire and cause no harm. Surely the fire ban did not apply to me. We sometimes take risks when we know we should not. I could have avoided the risk altogether. Very simple. Don’t light the leaves.
  • Our actions can cause harm to others. We sometimes think it’s okay to do our own thing. After all, it’s my life. However, our lives are interconnected to the lives of others. Our choices affect our friends, neighbors, and community. At work, our choices affect our team members, our organization, and our customers.

  • Our best attempts to control fires (called issues in the risk management world) may not be adequate. We may try to stop the issue from causing adverse impacts. However, some issues cause significant impact no matter how hard we try to stop it. Are we prepared? Do we have contingency plans and fallback plans for our most significant risks?

  • Defining and executing risk response plans is a much better strategy than responding to issues once they surface. Notice in this story the amount of effort and the cost to deal with an issue (fire in the woods). Making a good choice and avoiding the threat would have saved me a lot of heartaches.

What Risks Should You Avoid?

What activities are you engaged in today that you should avoid? What are the causes of your most significant threats? Are there ways of eliminating the cause and avoid the potential adverse impacts?

Be intentional about your risk management. Define your risk management plan. Identify and evaluate your risks. Discuss the most significant risks with your project team members and determine which risk strategy would be best. Define your risk responses to support the chosen strategy. Avoid risks where possible.

Harry Hall, PMP, PMI-RMP, is the Director of Enterprise Risk Management at the Georgia Farm Bureau Mutual Insurance Company, one of the largest domestic insurance companies in the state of Georgia. You can read more from Harry on his blog.

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