Situational awareness is key to managing risk?

by Dr. Glen Jones
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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 — a situational awareness. The mind needs to focus on the what-ifs and how to address them and focus on situational awareness. Interested in finding out about situational awareness for managing risk? Read further.

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 in 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.

Being situationally aware requires you to understand the current situation of the project and what will come next. This requires a significant amount of data. The pilot has navigation systems, instruments, weather reports, and eyes on the skies. This all brings information to the pilot to know what the current situation is. The flight plan identifies where the plane is to go next.

Similarly, the project team needs to be up to date on the status of the project: the current cost report, what has been completed, what resources are available, the contract terms, weather (if the project can be affected), labor market, business impacts. All of these sources of data will provide a picture of today’s project environment. The updated project schedule and plans will tell the project team where the project is going. Your risk register supports your memory of your risks and plans and becomes your communications tool to other team members and stakeholders.

It is critical to review the status of the project frequently to maintain your awareness of the current environment. It is also critical to regularly review the updated schedules and plans to be aware of the next steps of the project journey. Then hold a solo brainstorming session to identify where the risk points are that are imminent. Where is the next intersection? What would my reaction be? Document your analysis in the risk register so team members can respond accordingly.

Risk management is more than a set of tools and techniques. Risk management is about becoming situationally aware. Each team member needs to begin to understand the status of the project and how it is planned to proceed while looking for things that could impact it. Like safety and quality, risk management needs to be a state of mind that becomes ingrained in the organization’s culture. Then, we can truly say we are managing the risks on our projects.


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