Risks

Risk Avoidance

Risk Avoidance.jpg

Having recently been to a risk management conference, this got me thinking! Are some schools becoming so risk adverse to the point of harming kids?

When I was at school, I'd never heard of something called an incursion. In fact, I've only heard it in recent times. To me it just sounds like the school is getting raided by teams of crazed militia. I'm not sure whether it's just a stupid term for having a guest speaker, or an attempt by schools to avoid taking kids off site, by bringing the excursion to them.

If it's the latter, then there’s several problems with this, as so much learning occurs by actually getting out there and doing stuff, not by hanging around in the classroom. This is not to devalue the benefits of a guest speaker, but seriously, call them a guest speaker. The next time I go to a school to do a presentation, if they call it an incursion, I may feel like I need to bring a large collection of stray cats and let them loose to cause an expected level of disruption!

There is a serious point to this though. I’ve noticed an increasing number of schools opting for this type of experience for their students (maybe not involving cats), but having ‘incursions.’ The idea of a virtual ‘excursion’ falls into this same area of total risk avoidance and borders on stupidity, because we're creating a generation of people who can't cope with any sort of adversity. They're too used to having everything done for them or being able to do everything at arms’ length through technology. When things get real, they go to pieces.

A recent example of this was on a long-stay camping program. The students aren't allowed to bring phones, because part the aim is for them to have a break from the distraction of technology. One student was caught with his phone, and when confronted with this and the phone was confiscated, he had a complete meltdown.

This same concern ties back into the idiotic notions of incursions. Let's keep everything safe and risk free because we’re worried too much about consequences. I’m sorry to say, the world is full of real consequences and if you don't educate kids and expose them to at least some of this, then you're setting them up for failure. There are many excuses why people want to avoid real experiential education, but if you want kids to learn and grow, you need them to face real challenges, feel discomfort and be able to build up some resilience in anticipation of what will hit them once they leave school. The danger of failing to do this, means that you're just setting kids up for failure. Therefore, by totally avoiding risk, you're actually causing real harm to the students.

So the next time you're thinking of either going to the art gallery, or bringing the director of the art gallery to you, stop being stupid, book a bus and go and see real works of art, rather than have someone just come and talk to you about it. Real experience produces real learning outcomes and there is no substitute for this in life.

The Problem With Risk Assessments!

Documents - Risk Assessments

As soon as people hear risk assessment, most people switch off! I could say whatever I liked from now on and nobody would be any the wiser.  Once, I kidnapped a dolphin from Sea World and kept him in my swimming pool for weeks. We had several massive pool parties and it was awesome! So many people came and just swam around in the pool with him. We named him flipper! (Ok, so not very original for the name, but between him, Skippy in the back yard and Caramello living up the tree, once you start kidnaping animals as a hobby, you just go with the names everyone knows!)

See what I mean! If you actually made it to here, then you would understand my pain, or you think I'm mental or both! The fact is that most people would've stopped reading after the first line. It’s like when someone tells you they’re an accountant… The conversation usually ends there. However, risk assessment and risk management is a real issue that’s not just making sure you have your paper work done. It has to be an active process that’s taken seriously by everyone and not just something which makes people switch off and start looking for Pokémons with their phones.

The reason for adding in my wild dolphin parties was actually something I did as an exercise once with the program staff. It wasn’t a dolphin party, but how cool would that be! Anyway, I digress. I'd reviewed and updated the entire risk manage framework and needed to get everyone up to speed with the changes. This required everyone to do some reading. I was suspicious to begin with that nothing would be read, so I handed out the documents and unbeknown to them, this version of the risk assessments contained a bunch of massive errors. Some of the risks for a canoe expedition were: Attack by Hobbits, running into Cerberus (the demonic multi-headed dog that guards the gates Hades), being overrun by fluffy bunnies and drowning in chocolate syrup! To my disbelief, three people signed off on this risk assessment!!! I asked them again if they had any concerns or anything to add, ‘No, all good!’ was the standard response. “Really…,” I said, before asking each of them if they were happy to rely upon everyone being saved by Eagles when attacked by hordes of orcs? Stunned expressions turned to embarrassment when I provided a highlighted copy with all the glaringly obvious fake bits.

So does anybody read this rubbish? Basically, the answer is No! They don’t read it and it’s often a massive task to get anyone to write a risk assessment. Most are inappropriately copied and pasted from someone else’s work and don’t even match the real risk profile of the activity. Who would’ve thought that teaching is a hot bed of plagiarism!

Whilst I’m not saying don’t do it, I am saying there’s a massive problem that needs fixing here. What’s the point of wasting time with the creation of something that has very little value and nobody is actually using. What needs to happen is far different from what is actually happening in many schools when preparing for an excursion. The danger is that you’ve copied something that doesn’t make sense and submitted that as part of your official documentation. If this is the case and something goes wrong, this is just as bad, if not worse, than having nothing at all, because it demonstrates a complete disconnection from the awareness implementation of effective risk management strategies.

Ultimately no single person should be responsible for the risk assessment and management. It’s up to everybody on the team to contribute and turn those mindless pointless risk assessment forms that may contain attacks by mythical creatures, into functional living documents based upon industry best practices and a culture that proactively takes risk management off the page and continues to put it into action. Whilst I’ll revisit this later in some more detail, I must go and catch a plane, as my house has just been raided by National Parks and Wildlife. I might need to find a new hobby!

Risk!!! Where Do I Start???

Warning Sign - Risk Management

Risk is the potential of loss or harm and it's a huge issue when taking kids away on an excursion! But when managed effectively, it means you can provide kids with some fantastic learning opportunities out in the real world! One of the most important things to remember in this litigious world, is that we should never stop taking kids out on excursions! We should just make sure we do a great job in preparation and execution.

Unfortunately when it comes to the issue of risk, most people switch off, or think that it's too hard and that it's someone else's problem. However, if you're taking kids out of school on an activity, then it's not someone else's problem... it's your responsibility! The fact is that most of it comes down to common sense. I'll be posting more on risk and managing that risk through out the year, but here's a few tips on where to get started!

1. When planning an excursion - go and actually do the activity yourself ahead of time.
2. When you do the activity look for issues or concerned based around what could cause an injury or loss of any kind.
3. Take photos of the locations and make note of any issues, or concerns you have seen.
4. Come up with a solution for removing, mitigating and managing each possible risk.

It's that easy! And it doesn't matter if it's a local art gallery, or you're trekking the entire overland track! Get out there and do it! Have some fun as well! Oh and it's a work trip so get them to pay for it!

So as a good starting point for managing risk on an excursion, never be in the situation where you don't know what's around the next corner. Go there! Do it! Know what to expect! Nothing makes for a better risk assessment than seeing things first hand!

Policing The Lunch Box

Policing The Lunchbox - Risk Management

I recently read an article about a teacher writing a letter home to a parent telling them not to bring chocolate cake to school. In terms of earth shattering issues, this is rather low on the scale of importance in the world today, however, still worth a mention.
 
As a teacher, you see all sorts of weird and wonderful things that kids bring to school for lunch. You smell the amazing aroma of exotic spices and foods from all over the world in soups, pastas, noodles, wraps, burritos and even sandwiches. It makes my mouth water just thinking about it.
 
My question to the parents is, why didn't you send enough for me too? Some of the lunches I see are amazing and I just wish someone would pack that for me. In comparison, the classic cheese and salami sandwich doesn't seem to cut it anymore.
 
Whilst I'm a very strong believer that parents should stay out of trying to tell teachers how to teach, with one important exception to the rule, schools should stay out of kids’ lunch boxes.
 
For some reason, many schools have decided that telling parents what they can and can't give their kids for lunch will solve countless ‘dietary’, ‘allergy’ and ‘lifestyle’ problems. Much of this has been born out of two different concerns. The first one is the increasingly prevalent nut allergies, the second, childhood obesity.
 
For the first concern, I completely agree with very black and white rules. Any school's stance on maintaining a nut free campus is a great idea. The number of kids today who have a potentially fatal allergy to nuts is alarming and keeping the campus nut free is a smart way of reducing this risk and protecting the community from what can be a confronting and horrendous ordeal.
 
If someone has an anaphylactic reaction, untreated, their airways close up and they can be dead within minutes. Even if it's treated with an epi-pen, they must get to hospital as fast as possible and there's still no guarantee of recovery.  
 
Now anything which can kill someone in minutes needs to be taken seriously and parents should respect this decision on banning nuts. You're not going to put a brown snake in your kid’s bag which could bite someone and have the exact same result of a fast and painful death, so don't give your kids nuts to take to school.
 
On the other hand, in some schools, this concern has gone way too far and slowly but surely other foods have been added to a pointless list of contraband, driven by a misguided notion that if you ban lollies, chocolates and cakes, you will miraculously solve the societal problem of childhood obesity. It just doesn't work that way. Unlike an anaphylactic reaction, being fat won't kill you in 5-10 mins and the reality is most kids will burn off their cake fuelled calories, as they run around the playground.
 
At the end of the day, unless the school wants to provide lunch for everyone themselves, then they need to trust parents to make informed choices about what they're feeding their own children. If the concern is really about healthy eating, then the solution isn’t telling parents what they can and can't give their kids for lunch, because as soon as you tell people they can't have something or do something, it just makes them want to do it more.
 
If teachers have time to write letters home about the evils of chocolate cake or otherwise to tell parents not to let their kids have this food or that food for lunch, then they seriously have too much time on their hands and need something better to do. There's a reasonable and rational argument for nut free schools, but ultimately, schools need to balance this sort of real risk with a bit of common sense, so they don't start overreaching and trying to exercise control to the point of stupidity. 

Written Risk Assessments

Paperwork - Risk Assessment

Many organisations have irrational obsessions and unhealthy relationships with their written risk assessments. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t do written risk assessments because you should. They’re an extremely important part of a risk management framework. However, what is unhealthy about them, is the demand from management to have a written risk assessment, but once it’s done, it just gets filed and nothing else is done with it. Yet if something goes wrong, the first question is, ‘Where’s your risk assessment?’
 
This is a bizarre way to operate because you can write all the risk assessments in the world, but unless your staff are understanding of and actively managing risk, all your paperwork means absolutely nothing. Despite this reality, the paperwork obsession remains a top priority for many organisations, but unless every activity is being run by switched on professionals who pro-actively manage risk within the organisation, then no matter how good your paperwork is, you’re exposed.
 
The practical reality is that you can write whatever you like in a risk assessment document but often, once it’s written, it’s quickly forgotten. It soon gathers dust and like vampire in the night, it never sees the light of day again, until a pile of fanged marked corpses prompt someone into action.
 
You simply can’t afford to place yourself or your staff in a situation where this is the standard operating procedure. The end result, if something does go wrong, is usually expressed through head scratching and befuddled proclamations, ‘Well, we wrote a risk assessment!’ However, there can’t be a disconnect between the documentation and the implementation. They must be reflective of each other.
 
One organisation I previously worked for were totally and utterly obsessed with written risk assessments. I was tasked with auditing their risk assessments and methodology. However, from the moment I started reading what they had in place, it became evident there was absolutely no connection between the activity and what had been written. Subsequently, it became perfectly obvious that nobody had actually read any of the paperwork, which left me wondering what they’d been doing. Not only did their pointless documentation have to be re-written from scratch, a significant process of change management was required to refocus the culture within the organisation to be one that was proactive in its assessment and management of risk.
 
Often the source of this problem is that many organisations don’t have people who truly understand risk management at the top. Just because someone has reached a leadership position, doesn’t mean he actually knows anything about management, least of all, risk management. Therefore, if you put someone in the situation where he is supposed to be managing risk, yet doesn’t understand risk beyond filing a written document, it’s little wonder that he’s focussed on paper pushing nonsense and not on organisational culture.
 
In this situation, when something goes wrong, it becomes all about blame and retribution. It’s not about discussing what was the root cause of an incident, it’s about finding scapegoats. This sort of approach is unhealthy and totally counter-productive. What an organisation needs to be able to do is sit down and openly discuss activities that involve risk and be prepared to debrief near misses and learn from each other’s knowledge and experience.
 
Good risk management procedures stem from this sort of open, honest and pro-active culture of risk managers within an organisation. If everything’s about retribution and blame, you create a culture that wants to cover up anything that doesn’t go 100% to plan. With this, you get a thin veneer giving the impression everything’s fine, yet scratch the surface and you’ll find what can be a toxic mix, priming itself for a significant failure.
 
To avoid this, there has to be that open and honest conversation about risk, about contingency planning and about response and mitigation. It’s important to have someone at the top setting the tone and facilitating the culture within an organisation to ensure you have a team of proactive risk managers.
 
Ultimately, documentation is only a tiny part of how your organisation should be assessing and managing risk. The remainder comes down to the professionalism, experience and team work of your staff to ensure that every activity is being run safely and effectively. Once you’re operating with this cultural mindset and have a team of pro-active risk managers, the paperwork takes care of itself.