COVID is not a Black Swan event

Who could have predicted COVID?  Just about any risk manager worth their salt.  The producers of the movie Contagion in 2011 did an outstanding job of foreshadowing the events that are unfolding today.  So, why are we clambering to call this a black swan?  Simple, it provides a scapegoat for system-wide failures.

If there is one thing that you can take to your grave, it’s that people have embedded in the BIOS of their human operating system one line of code, that no matter how hard you try, you just can’t crack it.  You can’t delete it, can’t rewrite it or override it.  That line of code is “it won’t happen to me.”

It won’t happen to me

The variants of this line of code are many. It won’t happen here.  I can beat the odds.  I am better than that. I know better.  That would never happen. Yet, it does.  Year after year and decade after decade, history repeats itself.

The root cause of the mindset is simple – we came programmed that way for one purpose.  To survive.  If we believed all the bad things that could happen would happen, we would never leave the house.  We would never venture into uncharted waters and never take big risks that have super paydays.  This is one of the most difficult challenges for risk managers and safety managers the world over.

How do we change it

Simple, you can’t.  If you are looking to change this BIOS command, forget it.  As I stated earlier, this isn’t something that you can change.  It’s hardcoded into the human operating system.  We, as risk managers, have to learn to work with it.  We have to learn the fundamentals of other professions and use those skills to initiate stopgaps.  Sales, human psychology, motivations, neurolinguistics and a multitude of other sciences.  Then we have to use that knowledge and those skills to develop buy-in and push for safety and risk.  The biggest challenge is being overzealous.

Why risk managers fail at making things safer

The reason that a lot of risk managers fail at making their world safer is due primarily to two main shortcomings.  Overzealousness and myopic focus. All too often, risk and safety managers dive headlong into a single motivation. It could be money, pure safety at all costs, a specific set of injuries to prevent and a copious amount of other issues.  This narrowness becomes equivalent to the one-track minded individual at the bar.  They can’t enjoy the moment and end up offending their love interest with an insistence on sexual activity.  Nothing is worse than the risk manager who points all conversations back to the letter of the law as put together by OSHA’s minions.

People have personal lives.  Money; profit and loss; doing the right thing; social good; and just because we can are all part of the equation that make up the decision tree.  Life and business are not conducted in a test tube.  The fact that science points to statistical significance and causes, the fact is that you can never separate the variables of the human experience.  There is no single variable that points to the answer.  This leads to the second reason we fail to make things safer.  Overzealousness.

COVID-19 is a prime example of this concept.  Social distancing works.  However, when we take SD to a factor of 4, we place so much stress on the human that they break.  Where a factor of 1 or 2 will truly solve the issue, the overzealous risk manager goes to 4.  It’s akin to the guy in the bar who always has to one-up the fellow man to prove how cool they are.  But they never one-up, they always 4 up and then can’t understand why everyone is turned off.

To understand the human desire for a balance between recklessness and safety, we must look deep into each person’s motivation.  Motivation at that exact snapshot in time.  You can’t possibly talk about ramping up emergency spending when the organization is losing revenues or experiencing great financial loss.  You will never find a 50/50 balance at that moment.

What to do next

If you truly want to prevent the next so-called Black Swan event, then you need to start broadening your horizons.  Live life to the fullest.  Get out there and put everything on the table.  Assess your beliefs and why you hold them.  Don’t let things offend you.  Try to understand what makes people and organizations tick and at the end of the day do this: be reasonable and courteous.  Do that and you will see a much different safer world.





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