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Internalising Risk

March 20, 2012

No matter what level of career you are at, you’ve probably come across the term risk management. To most technical people, it means nothing.  If anything, it is one of those bullshit bingo-type terms that gets used for a made-up discipline that floats around in upper middle management.

In safety and risk engineering, risk management is something we twist. We decide that ‘risk’ is safety related and that ‘risk management’ mostly means the controls we put in place to stop our operations from going wrong – e.g. deluge systems for a fire risk, control systems for a process risk or cleanup measures for an environmental risk.

The thing is, though, that risk management is bigger than that.  Which is exactly why the niche market exists for those upper middle management-types.  Take, for example, your simple act of putting in a deluge system to manage what happens when a fire breaks out.  Inadvertently you are also making the following decisions:

  • I choose not to put controls in place to prevent the fire;
  • I choose not to use an alternative system, such as inert gas, to suppress my fire;
  • I choose to put an unspoken value on the outcome of the fire to accurately cost the deluge system;
  • I choose to take responsibility for the outcomes if my chosen deluge system fails.

Recently Engineers Australia has revamped their Chartership requirements and added a requirement for all Chartered engineers to have a component of risk management to their experience. “But that’s a niche discipline,” yelped one fellow reviewing the new requirements, “how is a design engineer to get experience doing something reserved for upper management?”

I think this is one of the issues with the classic engineering brain.  Just because you are designing a pipe or a widget or a jet engine doesn’t mean you are only doing design.  The fellow mentioned above probably manages risk every day without even realising it.  I’d venture to bet that for almost every decision he makes he weighs options, see the option benefits and pitfalls, decides on the most acceptable outcomes and chooses the option that minimises the risks posed to his design.

But What Do You Mean By Internalising Risk?

One of the things we most often struggle with is helping our clients to genuinely understand the risk that they are accepting when they authorise one solution over another.  Giving someone numbers like “your risk is 1.3×10-6 for this situation” doesn’t adequately illustrate the fact that they’ve chosen to accept an increase in their personal and/or corporate liability for the benefit of production.  They’ve taken on the possibility of a bad thing happening in the future in exchange for a productive thing happening now.

Recently the Scout and I bought a house overseas – a house we’d never even seen.  This particular house is on a transmission line clear way hosting high voltage power lines which – if you read the interwebs – can generate magnetic waves capable of producing illness, disease and even death.  There are vague links to childhood leukemia, a couple of recorded studies on spontaneous abortion and many reports of people feeling ill due to the Gaussian waves produced by transmitting electricity down the line.

Sounds like a big deal, right?  So the Scout and I had to decide if we were happy to buy the house (which was everything we’d been looking for minus the transmission lines of death).

Given that Gaussian waves are not my area of expertise (oh, really?), I did what I’d hope most people in such a position would do.  I read.  I read everything I could find on the topic – the inflammatory anti-science stuff, the peer-reviewed journal stuff, the in-betweeny semi-science-y stuff.  I read enough that I felt like I owned the problem, and that I could make an informed decision about how much risk I would take on.

In the end it boiled down to a few allowable numbers summarised as: if a 2 milligauss limit is good enough for the WHO, it’d be good enough for me.

So again, I did what any technically inclined type might venture to do next – I bought a gaussmeter… and made my crazed sisters creep around behind the backyard of our potential purchase to measure the Gaussian field generated at peak power time.

Success!! Only 1 milligauss!!

Sure, it wasn’t 0 milligauss, like many of the suburbs we’ve measured since, but it also wasn’t 8 milligauss which is what the meter read on the drive home at points.

So we decided to buy it. And in doing so we also made the following decisions:

  • I choose to trust the science behind the numbers at the WHO;
  • I choose to balance my fear of the unknown with the conclusions of the papers I’ve read;
  • I choose to take responsibility for any ill effects that my family could suffer from living in such proximity to the power lines.

Which is really the crux of the thing: to fully take responsibility for the risk I was accepting.

Often this is lacking in the decisions that each of us make at work.  Often ownership of the problem seems so difficult that it’s easier to make a decision and ignore the risks.  Often it is much easier to be the middle man who doesn’t actually make the decision, but presents the information for someone else to judge.  Often the bureaucracy of large operating companies makes it easy to never be the person to internalise the risk and make the right decision.  Taking responsibility is scary.

Unfortunately in the case of my clients, though, they are playing with the lives of other people.  They do not have the luxury of ignoring the choices involved in managing their risks.  In the end, someone needs to take the responsibility.

It’s also worth watching the money trail – those who take the required responsibility are often the ones benefitting monetarily from their ability to manage the risks that they must choose to accept or decline daily.

To end, I offer this – a guide for understanding, internalising, and managing risk effectively:

  • I acknowledge that I do not have all the information; but
  • I acknowledge that a decision has to be made without certainty.
  • I choose to manage my liability by learning as much as I can; and
  • I choose to make a decision with the information I have at hand.

But finally and most importantly:

  • I choose to take responsibility for this decision.

Slide 14 (test tubes) courtesy cambodia4kidsorg; Electromagnetic Wave courtesy waljoris on Flickr.


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Pulling my Career Out of the Garbage

July 10, 2011

I didn’t sign up to be a training coordinator…

…or a chef…

…or a psychologist or a postal worker or a web copy writer or a child care relief worker.  I did, however, sign up to be an engineer, which is evidenced by my meticulous collection of every piece of career feedback I’ve ever received, every award I’ve ever been presented and every goal I have ever set (both achieved and in progress) in my Portfolio Binder (note the capitals to emphasize the importance) .  And if this sounds slightly like perfectionism to you (crossed with both a healthy dose of external validation and a love of well-organized stationery), then you, sir, have won a prize.

But this week (read: month) I am all of those roles, because that’s what we do when we live at warp speed and multitask (usually ineffectively say the stats), and try to help others.

As you can see (keep reading…)

Real Life

April 12, 2011

Yes, I’ve disappeared, but not for good.  Feel free to take a look around as I stay incognito for a while.  I’m trying to put on a motivational push for getting my Chartership progressed – even as the post ideas build up in my graphpaper moleskine. Unfortunately this requires a lot of writing, and a significant amount of time, both of which are usually reserved for crafting my context here.

Some posts you might like in the meantime:

So until I return (which I anticipate to be in a few weeks months) – happy reading and (to my fellow bloggers) happy blogging!

Pause courtesy Vanderlin.

ChEnected Post: To Be or Not To Be… An Engineer

March 4, 2011

This post was written for ChEnected.  That (slightly modified) version can be found here.

Being a professional means that you get letters after your name, and it may make getting that next job a little easier, but can I venture to say that certification doesn’t necessarily make the engineer?

I’d like to share a story for anyone who hasn’t already heard it. At the beginning of February an engineer in North Carolina filed a complaint against a computer scientist for allegedly producing work that only a professional engineer should produce.

From the article:

Cox and his North Raleigh neighbors are lobbying city and state officials to add traffic signals at two intersections as part of a planned widening of Falls of Neuse Road.

After an engineering consultant hired by the city said that the signals were not needed, Cox and the North Raleigh Coalition of Homeowners’ Associations responded with a sophisticated analysis of their own. The eight-page document with maps, diagrams and traffic projections was offered to buttress their contention that signals will be needed […].

Which seems fairly innocuous to me, notable even, but one engineer (keep reading…)

Top 3 Blog Quotes of the [insert time period] – Volume 3

February 23, 2011

For those that are new, this is the series where I feature quotes from other bloggers, journalists or fellow online wordsmiths that have made me think or react in a notable way. I collect them up, and when I reach 3 (and/or find the time to put my thoughts against them), it’s time to post.

If you’d like to start at the beginning, then here are Volumes 1 & 2:

  • Volume 1 (on titles, trust and changing the world); and
  • Volume 2 (on relentless questioning, imagery and putting yourself out there).

On with the quotes!  (keep reading…)

On Culture and the Discussion that Isn’t

January 29, 2011

Welcome to an uncharacteristic weekend-rant-post regarding a couple of things I’ve read this week that have made me unreasonably angry. Two words: cultural sensitivity.


5 points for spotting a cultural sensitivity.


We all know that some of the greatest hurdles to overcome in the office, on site or anywhere in life, really, are culture differences.  In businesses which trade in expat professionals, specifically, it is common to work with people from all over the planet (keep reading…)

ChEnected Post: The Credibility Threshold

January 27, 2011

This post was written for ChEnected.  That (slightly modified) version can be found here.

Being the youngest attendee (by about 10 years) at a recent conference meant that I spent a considerable amount of time observing the interactions between the more experienced engineers and businessmen.  As with many social interactions, there seems to be a formula for such discussions:
  1. Exchange pleasantries, handshakes & (if appropriate) business cards.
  2. Ask where the other person is based or “where that accent is from.”
  3. Share a story of working in the discussed location.
  4. Discuss the business environment and developments in one of the locations.
  5. Eventually get around to asking what one another do.
  6. Acknowledge that your organization needs their offering, can fill their need or has similar technical interests.
  7. Make agreements to contact the other person to maintain a business contact, acquire their services, or provide them your own.
  8. Shake hands, and move away with a slight nod.

The interesting thing for me was noting that, in order to discuss the business you are both there to discuss, you must first (a) indicate how experienced you are, and (b) show that you understand the industry. If you can’t satisfy these steps, (keep reading…)


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