Use your imagination

March 19, 2018
Encore Research

Whatever happened to the phenomena of alien abductions? The 80s were rife with them. A Friday night would not go past without somebody getting snatched from their car, taken back to a mother ship and subjected to unspeakable experiments, only to wake up the next morning with a vague recollection of the ordeal. Where did the aliens go? It’s like they’ve lost interest in us.

Whenever I coach people in risk assessment, I encourage a healthy imagination, especially when they are trying to determine potential risks in a work system. I then qualify this with “try to keep it real.” Well, be careful what you ask for. Sometimes this advice can backfire, especially when a group start the whole “what if” exercise and you somehow end up with Armageddon getting a mention in the risk assessment.

In risk management, a vivid imagination is extremely useful. Engineers have to use theirs, such as it is, to identify potential risk. In highly networked or complex work systems such as production lines or power generation, engineers engage in what’s referred to as a fault-mode effects analysis (FMEA). This is taken one step further with an assessment of multiple simultaneous event (MSE) vulnerability, or that most dreaded of risk scenarios, the cascading events leading to a catastrophic failure (CELCF). While you’re trying to get your head around that, you need only look to the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster as an example. The events unfolded like this. The earthquake struck northern Japan and the reactors shut down automatically. The emergency generators came online to control electronics and cooling systems. So far everything is working fine. However, when the tsunami rolled in minutes later and flooded the rooms containing the emergency generators contaminating them with seawater and shutting down the cooling system, the situation spiralled out of control. MSE becomes CELCF.

So what can we in the events industry learn from such incidents? Plenty.

The first sobering fact is that despite what you may think, CELCFs are not so rare. Three major stage collapses in North America and Europe in the past 12 months, all with eerily similar circumstances (flawed management systems and structural failure), demonstrate just how exposed promoters and event organisers are to catastrophe.

Second, all catastrophic events in commerce and industry, even ones where nature appears to be the culprit, can be traced back to human error, oversight or negligence. Take Fukushima for example. The root cause of the meltdown was not the earthquake or even the tsunami. It was because key individuals chose to ignore a risk assessment urging the seawall to be raised from 5 to 10 meters a decade earlier.

With the gift of hindsight, everyone’s an expert. Actually predicting catastrophe and risk managing it, however, is far more difficult.

So I was somewhat surprised that our Perth & Adelaide teams (who from time to time deliver events in some of Australia’s most remote locations), did not identify the potential risk of alien abduction while travelling on one of those long lonely stretches of road. They clearly didn’t grow up in rural Australia during the ‘80s.

Try to keep it real.