Situational awareness is key to managing risk?

Like safety and quality, risk management is a state of mind with forethought. It cannot be simply boiled down into a set of tools and techniques. There are tools and techniques involved, but to be truly effective at risk management requires a trained mind. The mind needs to focus on the what ifs and how to address them and focus on situational awareness.

Similar to driving a car or flying a plane, being situationally aware helps to identify potential risk points. For example, when you are behind the wheel of your car, you are looking more cautiously at intersections for where someone could pull out in front of you. When driving in the woods, you respond to the deer crossing sign by watching the shoulders and tree lines for the creatures. In the same light, a situationally aware project manager will be thinking through the project to identify where will the delays initiate, where will the additional costs originate.

When risks are identified by the situationally aware project team, the next step is to identify a response to the risk. If the engine of the plane cuts out, what response does the pilot perform? A trained pilot is always looking for the next safe landing area for this very situation. What if another aircraft suddenly appears in the area? The trained pilot will steer towards the open air or turn right if the other plain is directly ahead. These are already predefined before the pilot enters the situation. Likewise, project team members should train their minds to prepare a response to perceived risks to the project.

So, how does a project manager or team member become situationally aware? The response is to train the mind. Training the mind to be situationally aware is not difficult, but requires effort over a period of time. This is where risk management tools and techniques come in handy. A daily solo brainstorming session can help you to renew your attention to be situationally aware.

Think about the last time you were in a risk management session with your project team. Picture the team sitting around the table, staring at each other trying to come up with a new risk. Remember the same list of risks that are presented in every project and every session. This brainstorming session is a focused effort to identify risks, but risks do not occur as a static environment. The project is an ever-changing landscape. Every decision and every event creates a new picture of the project for the risks to jump out at you. This dynamic environment is why project managers struggle with risk management. Therefore, constant vigilance must be developed and maintained.

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