Over President’s weekend, I spent 4 days with friends and family deep in the backcountry at an AIARE I Avalanche safety course with our friends at Payette Powder Guides. Split between classroom time in the Yurt and field work while backcountry skiing in the Payette National Forest, it was incredibly enlightening and I recommend the class for anyone faced with decision making in avalanche terrain. It was fascinating to learn so much about avalanches and the snow science behind them. We spent a great deal of time focused on good decision making as well as how to use beacons and work as a team to locate and extract an avalanche victim. We filled out pre-excursion trip reports over breakfast and field reports both during and after. We dug hand pits and a full blown 6 foot snow pits to examine the different layers of the snowpack and assess changing conditions.
One of my biggest takeaways from the experience was learning that 95% of the time, snow in the mountains is relatively stable. It’s the other 5% of the time that you have to plan for in order to avoid catastrophe. It’s simply risk management. We were presented with so much information during our class that our heads started to swirl. Our guides shared with us that when making decisions in avalanche terrain, you can really boil it down to four questions. When we heard this, my good friend Sue leaned over to me and said “sounds a lot like your business.”
- What’s the problem? (ex. – Wind slab? Visibility? Weather? Terrain trap?)
- Where is it? (ex. – NE facing slopes? All aspects?)
- What’s the likelihood? (ex. – low, we’re skiing SW facing, low angle slopes)
- What are the consequences?
The idea isn’t to talk yourself out of a great ski day. Even on days when you wake up and there’s significant avalanche danger, there’s ways to ski safely in the backcountry. The idea is to keep yourself and your group away from the danger. That could mean a change in what or where you planned to tour that day.
Since then, I’ve been thinking about how little time most companies spend on risk management. Most startups I’ve been involved in have had one or more near-death experiences emerge from out of the blue. The notion isn’t to take your foot of the gas and spend all your time on what-if scenarios; but to know where the danger is lurking and what you’ll do if it appears. Most of the time, management teams are heads down and focused on moving the ball forward and very little time is spent thinking about existential threats. I’m planning on bringing this up with the boards I’m on as a regular (even if brief) discussion point at our board meetings.
What other questions do you think would be helpful for management teams to regularly ask themselves in order to practice good risk management?