It’s a year to the day since the World Health Organisation declared that COVID-19 should be characterised as a pandemic. This was in response to the rapid spread and severity of the virus at that point, coupled with ‘alarming’ levels of inaction by countries. It is worth reflecting on what has happened since and how it is affecting our decision making, particularly in relation to risk management.
At Government level, all the way down to individual households and businesses, we have learnt to live differently since COVID changed our lives irrevocably last year. However we end up going about our daily routines in the years and decades to come, COVID will have changed some things permanently. Potentially – and hopefully for those of use who are involved in risk management – it will mean that we all take more time to consider how evaluating and planning for the impact of risk on our businesses can be of benefit. It’s a fairly simplistic way to look at it, but either subconsciously or with a clear intention to, we’ve all evaluated how this last year has panned out for us professionally, and we probably fit into one of three groups – those who had a written risk management plan that worked pretty well, those who had a risk management plan that didn’t work so well and those who realised they probably should have had a risk management plan.
No right answer
Interestingly, even those with a rigorous risk management plan will have found areas for improvement post-COVID. Such was (is) the scale of the impact, not many plans will have predicted the effects or had mitigating controls in place to fully combat them. However, the more robust the plan, the better the organisation would have been placed to cope with the ever-changing situation. There has never been a better time to galvanise the support of the entire workforce to think differently about risk, how to approach it and how to react to a changing landscape, because we’re all doing that on a daily basis. Risk managers will be able to refer back to COVID and what went well or what could be improved for the foreseeable future, so it’s important that this opportunity is used to create a culture of understanding and embracing risk as a part of our everyday lives.
A consequence of the elevation of risk-based decision making has been the desire to protect ourselves and support family & friends, work colleagues, neighbours etc. The sense of community has been strengthened and we are all more conscious of our desire to be safe. This measured approach can bring great benefits to a business environment – perhaps we’ll be more considerate of those around us and of other people’s needs, more courteous towards others maybe? New ideas and developments may be given more airtime rather than being immediately dismissed and, with a more pragmatic and rigorous approach to evaluating future opportunities, they may have a better chance of success by the time they are launched. Risk management should be embedded in everything we do as a business and rather than being seen with negative connotations, it may now be given the space to make a positive difference.
What to do now
It’s highly likely that the next major incident that takes us by surprise will grab our attention very quickly. We’ll be tuned into advice and used to following specific instruction so will probably be on high alert for some time to come – without really realising it. Speaking at the COVID-19 media briefing in March 2020, the Director-General of WHO highlighted how they had been in full response mode since being notified of the first cases and “called every day for countries to take urgent and aggressive action”. Emphasising that “we cannot say this loudly enough, or clearly enough, or often enough”, he stressed that “all countries can still change the course of this pandemic” if they “detect, test, treat, isolate, trace, and mobilize their people in the response”. Perhaps we’ll all be ready to act and heed advice more quickly in the future, given how we’ve seen many Governments react slowly to what we now realise to be very compelling arguments.
What we shouldn’t do, however, is hibernate, at least not in the business sense. There is opportunity out there, and being aware of risk gives us the chance to take those opportunities. It might seem counter-intuitive, but the more time and energy that is placed on assessing and managing risk, the more potential opportunities are created, as understanding where weaknesses might lie also opens up the possibility to remedy them and become stronger.