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Understanding risk
posted by John : October 4, 2013
I've written about why I take risks before, but not what risk actually is or how you can assess it. This is part two in a (probably long series) of posts on risk.

We implicitly accept risk every day.

I get up in the morning and drink coffee. I drive to the gym. I ride the bus to work. I sit behind a desk all day. I ride the bus home. When I'm lucky, I accept risk when I drive to a trailhead, lace up my boots, and hike down a trail.

Almost all these are low risk. We know that the risk of drinking a cup of coffee (or four or five in my case) is relatively low. We don't even need to think about it to understand it's a low risk.

But what if we wanted to break it down so we could really understand risk?

Risk is often defined as a function of the likelihood of an event occurring and it's impact. Something like this:

Risk = Likelihood * Impact

When I think about the risks involved with my coffee habit (let's be honest, it's not a habit, it's an addiction) I need to come up with a list of possible events.

I could run out of coffee.

I could burn myself with hot coffee.

I could get a headache.

I could get the shakes.

I could stain my shirt before an important meeting at work.

For each possible event, I would consider the likelihood and impact.

I could burn myself with hot coffee.

Likelihood: Low (because I almost always drink from mugs with lids)

Impact: Medium (yes, it will hurt, but it won't be a big deal)

Risk: Low * Medium = Medium

I could stain my shirt before an important meeting at work.

Likelihood: Low (because my mugs have lids and I rarely attend important meetings)

Impact: High (some meeting attendees may devalue my participation if my shirt is stained)

Risk: Low * High = Medium

From this perspective, the risk of staining my shirt is higher than the risk of burning myself.

For each risk we identify, the next step is to respond. We can accept the risk, defer the risk, transfer the risk, or mitigate the risk.

To accept the risk is to recognize that the event could come to pass, but we won't do anything to prevent it or minimize the impact.

Deferring is similar to accepting, but we commit to reviewing the risk later. Perhaps a stain on my shirt isn't a big deal now, but if I get a promotion my appearance could be more important.

Transferring risk is best thought of in terms of insurance. I can get an insurance policy that will pay out if I burn myself with coffee, which reduces the impact and therefore the risk.

Finally, I can mitigate. Mitigation is the act of attempting to reduce the likelihood or impact of an event. I could mitigate the risk of burns by making my coffee cooler and reducing the likelihood I'll be burned. I can mitigate the risk of a stained shirt by keeping a spare shirt at the office thereby reducing the likelihood I'll have to attend a meeting with a coffee stain.

With this background let's think about adventuring in the outdoors. When we plan a trip and periodically throughout a trip we should be assessing risk.

As an example, consider an early Fall hike I wanted to do. After work, I planned to climb Mailbox Peak to get into the fresh snow near the summit. Although I'd leave in daylight, it would be dark by the time I returned. Here's an abbreviated list of potential events and their likelihood and impact.

I could get lost on the trail in the dark.Low. I've climbed 15 times this year and 28 times last year. I know the trail.High. If I get lost I could be forced to spend the night on the mountain.
I could get hurt.Medium-Low. I've hiked enough to know my limits, but I could run into a tree in the dark.High. Depending on the nature of the injury I could be forced to spend the night out.
My dog could get lost in the dark.Low. She's a great trail dog and doesn't stray far even when off-leash.High. If I lost Treen I'd spend all night looking for her. If she was truly lost it would be devastating for the family.
My dog could get hurt.Medium. Dogs often don't signal when they are nearing their limits and won't hold themselves back.High. Treen is 65 pounds. It would be extremely difficult to help her off the mountain if she seriously hurt.
I could be extremely tired at work the next day.High. On a trip like this, I wouldn't likely be home until 11pm and wouldn't be asleep until midnight.Low. My work requires me to be mentally sharp and it would suffer if I was too tired. However, it's not a personal-safety issue.

Based on this assessment, the highest risks are that either I or my dog would get hurt. Given the high impact of these risks, I was not willing to accept them. Similarly, I'm not going to defer them and transferring the risk doesn't make any sense.

I could mitigate the risk in a number of ways. I could use a PLB or a two-way communicator, but rescue at night, on the steep slopes and potentially in the trees is unlikely unless it was truly life threatening.

I could adjust the start time so I wasn't going to be on the mountain at night. Unfortunately, my schedule doesn't allow for this.

I could travel with other experienced hikers that could help me or Treen if one of us were injured. This is my preferred mitigation in most cases. In the end, however, my usual companions were unavailable to hike.

Given the level of risk and my inability to effectively mitigate that risk, I decided not to climb.

This type of assessment is not always necessary, but it is often useful to really explore your plans before and during a trip. Especially when you are part of a group and the risk of group-think might lead you into a situation you don't want to be in. Even when you make a risky decision, this process will help identify ways you could mitigate the risk.

Remember that you don't always have to simply accept a risk. Take the time to consider how you can minimize the risk. Be open to the idea that the best course of action is to avoid the risk entirely by choosing a different route or drinking a couple more cups of coffee. Just be sure you have a lid on your mug and a spare shirt at the office.

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