Risk is an interesting thing. We know it’s out there, and on some level we believe we are managing it. How we manage risk in practice, however, is often very different than what we let on—or are taught—about how to manage it in theory.
Formal risk management strategies have been around for a while, and they are increasing in popularity and visibility. Whether it’s about project risk management or enterprise risk management, they have the same essential process: identify risks, prioritize them based on probability and impact, and then identify appropriate response strategies. We can avoid risk, transfer it to someone else, mitigate it or simply accept its presence.
While this essential framework may be well understood—and relatively simple to apply—it is used far less, and far less formally, then many would suspect. Risks that are identified tend to be the ‘usual suspects,’ reflecting what is normally encountered. Risk prioritization is often a haphazard labelling of low, medium or high with little consideration of what that means. Risk response plans are rare, and typically revolve around acceptance.
While it’s fine to criticize, and many of us may acknowledge this reality—along with a quiet internal admonishment that we should get better at addressing risk—it really doesn’t matter. Formal risk assessment belongs where it belongs: thinking about what can fell projects and lay waste to organizations. Risk management practices are defined in a way to externalize, discuss and make choices about risks. They help to articulate and clarify risk tolerances, and negotiate what we are organizationally prepared to invest in, and what we will endure. But formal risk management approaches don’t make much of a difference for us individually.
This reality was highlighted for me in an intriguing article that was published a few years ago in HBR. It’s an interesting read in the context of why risk management is challenging, particularly in the face of catastrophic-yet-remote events. But the point that has stuck with me about the article is something that is presented almost as an aside: “In our private lives… we don’t try to calculate the odds that events will occur; we only worry about whether we can handle the consequences if they do.”
That’s a really interesting approach to thinking about risk (particularly if, like me, you have a bent for project management). It’s an essential concept—and a powerful one—but it is not an obvious one. Rather than exploring, evaluating, prioritizing and weighing the consequences of everything that might go wrong—an exhaustive and exhausting exercise that still won’t highlight everything—we should instead think about asking, “do I have the capacity to cope with what might happen?”
For many of us, our ability to cope is stretched on a regular, sustained basis. Sometimes (and for some of us) that stretch is mild, and sometimes it is significant. Occasionally, all elasticity is gone, and we find ourselves well past the breaking point. It’s the rare person who is comfortable being able to say they have the capacity to cope and the resiliency to respond in the face of any challenge. We can flex in the face of moderate challenge, but eventually we are confronted by situations that challenge our limits. That’s when we find ourselves being truly tested.
I was reminded of this vividly and personally last week. I’ve had some critical projects wrapping up, and another significant one has been getting underway since February. Between work commitments, personal obligations and efforts to keep my own side projects on target, there hasn’t been much slack in my schedule. For the previous few weeks, I had been running very nearly flat out.
Last Tuesday morning, I had quite literally just pressed ‘send’ on the two final deliverables for a project. I had a newsletter to finish off, and for the first evening in quite some time I could look forward to relaxing, reading, enjoying a fire and maybe getting to bed at a civilized hour. Right up until I got an email from my condo manager indicating a backed up sewer stack that had resulted in ‘moderate’ flooding in our unit.
Spoiler alert: the flooding wasn’t moderate. Sewage had—for some time—been cascading from the kitchen sink under the cabinetry, walls and floorboards. Much of the unit sustained water damage, including most of the flooring, baseboards and drywall. Cue the start of three days of non-stop damage control, coordinating insurers, contractors, the condo corporation and others I’m probably forgetting about. Everyone had a viewpoint, everyone had an opinion, and I was the only one in the exercise whose sole focus was on making sure that my interests—and assets—were protected.
There was a lot of good that happened last week. My insurer has been spectacular. The condo corporation, once on board with the extent of the damage, has been entirely responsive. The contractors I have dealt with have been universally amazing. By end-of-day Friday, clean up was complete and new drywall was already installed. At the same time, we are currently without an office and a downtown base, everything in the condo is packed in boxes, and I had to leave on Sunday on a business trip.
To the question of whether I have the capacity to cope with what has happened, though, my answer has to be qualified. In the objective terms of risk management, sure, without question. We have insurance, and the financial impact of the loss will be covered. The timing was also entirely fortuitous, in that—barring some minor rescheduling—I was able to carve out three full days to be on site and manage the consequences. But that’s not the full measure of what it means to cope.
I like to think of myself as confident and competent in a crisis. To a certain extent, it’s a professional obligation. I’ve managed enough projects, provided guidance to a large number of customers and navigated through sufficient uncertainty to demonstrate that many times over. In the context of a professional crisis, I am the model of calm; the eye of the storm, watching, predicting and providing confident guidance on what has to happen next. Through learning, experience and the development of a broad and eclectic range of skills, I’ve come to enjoy the challenge of managing the unknown.
Nonetheless, there are times when the wheels come off, and when they do it’s pretty spectacular. After spending the last week managing to juggle an astonishing number of balls, I set off this past Sunday on a short business trip. My day of travel could be characterized as being somewhere between uneventful and good; my plane was only moderately delayed, I managed to get upgraded to business class, my bag came out within minutes of arrival and I had a perfectly respectable rental car awaiting me.
All of which makes completely inexplicable the absolute rage, anger and hostility that I felt towards the drivers around me as I made my way from airport to hotel. Except that it’s not really inexplicable. Our stress levels are an astonishingly good indicator of where we are at, and how we are doing. And on Sunday —a theoretically innocuous day when compared to the rest of my week—I wasn’t doing very well.
This is where we bring the conversation fully back to risk, and our ability to cope. Over the course of many days last week—and arguably over the preceding weeks of intensive and intense work—I had coped admirably well. Work got done, commitments were met, expectations were managed and accomplishments got checked off with regularity. A completely unexpected event was addressed positively and proactively. Even better, I miraculously had the bandwidth to deal with it when it happened. That’s all to the good.
By the time I got to the end of my week, though, I was fully expended. There was no more capacity, no more resilience and no more flex. And at that point, the smallest and most inconsequential thing could—and did—set me off.
Do we have the capacity to cope with what’s happening? That’s the essential risk management question that we all have to address and answer. The good news is that we all have the capacity to answer it. Doing so, though, requires paying attention to the clues and cues of our subconscious selves. Our bodies know far better than our objective mind how well we are doing. Blood pressure, heart rate, quality of sleep and tolerance for idiocy are all leading indicators of whether we are in our happy place. The happier we are, the more resilient we are. The lower our resilient, the testier and tenser we become.
Whether—and how—we pay attention to this is important. It’s easy to ignore or be oblivious to the signs that we are reacting unreasonably and being disproportionality sensitive—or insensitive—to those around us. The cues that indicate a shift from balanced to unbalanced are slight, but the consequences of the shift can be significant. More importantly, it may be completely obvious to the outside observer that we are out of balance, even as we think ourselves to be amazingly in control.
The consequence is that we need to hone our ability to truly take stock of our state of mind and level of stress. That may be about learning to listen to—and hear—the viewpoint of others. Optimally it should mean improving our ability to listen to ourselves. We need to be sensitive to the weak signals from our unconscious that our conscious selves are veering out of control.
The cues are going to be different for each of us. Unmanaged, though, the consequences are the same. Without recognizing that we have surpassed our ability to cope, we are going to respond unreasonably, react inappropriately, lash out and explode. Doing so is going to create collateral damage that we may not have intended, but that we are still going to have to walk back from, manage and clean up. Far better to avoid having to do so than finding ourselves having to sheepishly acknowledge the disproportionate way we reacted to someone we actually care about.
The capacity to cope is an essential part of responding to uncertainty, to managing risk and to staying in control. We won’t always manage to stay within it, but the more we know we are veering out of control, the better we can manage and mitigate the impact. Part of that is building in buffer to manage the unknown; not scheduling every minute and every hour, to the extent that we have no freedom to respond and no flexibility for a change in plans. Part of that is building strategies to maintain and manage our peace of mind, to establish and sustain balance in a world that often feels pretty unbalanced. And a lot of that is maintaining the emotional self-awareness of how we are doing, and maintaining sufficient capacity for self-regulation to do something about it.
We don’t have to anticipate everything that might go wrong. We don’t have to accurately gauge the likelihood or impact of the potential problems. And we don’t need plans to deal with every eventuality. What we need is to know that we have the capacity, the resilience and the confidence to cope with the situations that we might face, and the backup and support of our friend and family to face those challenges when they occur.
Coping isn’t about simply getting by. It’s about facing the obstacles that present themselves, being confident in our ability to tackle them and still valuing and appreciating who we are on the other side. Our capacity to cope is our essential ability to succeed.