Slacking off without consequences—Practical Risk Management

Just don’t do the task. Or more precisely, first consider not doing it. Then decide. Does anybody care? Does anybody even notice? Is there any value to the effort? Is there a time limit that affects others? The difficulties begin when people unilaterally ignore a task simply because it is unpleasant. That type of slacking off may have significant negative consequences, particularly at work. However, a few minutes of consideration may convince you that the benefits of ignoring a task really outweigh the consequences.

An example for today: At work, there are always reports to be written. Some seem to have value, but there are any number that seem to go nowhere. People recognize this and periodically have collaborative meetings to redefine the reports etc. But the reports creep back in, particularly when an insecure, micromanaging supervisor appears who seems to value having all the information available at the expense of delegation and setting direction. When such a supervisor moves on, the reports continue with a life of their own. The elimination of this type of work can be efficiently accomplished by application of the principles of Practical Risk Management.

Risk management is really a systematic way of looking at an operation, its uncertainties, the consequences of these uncertainties, and evaluating actions that can be taken to minimize the negative consequences. There have been elaborate methods worked out to apply these principles to complex systems in order to have them perform reliably. Consider for example, a commercial airplane. Components such as the engines and propulsion systems, fuel delivery, communications, pilot performance, and ground support systems must function as intended and interface with the others. Risk management techniques have been used during the design and testing to increase the reliably of the aircraft to the point where it is safer to take an airplane trip than an automobile.

The important point is that the same principles that have been used to increase the reliability of complex systems can be simplified and applied to allow you to slack off without consequences.

The risk management procedure at its simplest takes only a few minutes of thought and has only four steps:

1. Understand the facts of the task under consideration—these are the people, information, schedules etc. as well as the process to reach the stated outcome.

2.Make up ideas or scenarios of different actions that you could pursue that differ from the normal course. These scenario changes introduce uncertainty into the process and are called “risk events”

3. Logically follow out the likely consequences each idea. Remember that this is a mental exercise based on your perceptions. However, if you are dealing with a familiar situation and you have reasonable judgment, your assessment of the potential consequences will likely be in the ball park.

4. Select the most appropriate course of action. However, the actual consequence may be different from your analysis. These differences are generally not a big deal. Pay attention and monitor the actual results. Change your selected action as appropriate.

Let’s go back to the example of these reports that apparently go nowhere:

1. Fact:

Reports take resources, do not appear to have value.

2. Possible Actions

Ignore writing the report

Reduce the report substantially

Continue the status quo

Change the system

3. Briefly consider the likely consequences for each action

  • Ignore it individually—If no one really cares, there will be no consequences. If someone does care, how will it be brought to your attention? If it is likely to be a friendly reminder, you have paid a small price to learn this. If it is the loss of your job, well it just is not worth it.
  • Reduce it substantially—Gradually reduce the effort and content until someone notices, then make the adjustment permanent.
  • Continue the status quo—Potential consequence is that you will lose the edge on your initiative and skills
  • Change the system—Some people like to do this. Mostly they are bureaucrats. It’s a longer term approach.

4. Take the most appropriate action, monitor and modify if necessary based on the observed result.

So, there can be tasks not done and no consequences. The risk management principles can help you to decide which ones to let go. The evaluation takes only a few minutes to use. This method can be applied to a wide variety of tasks. I’ll pick this up at another time.

Actually, it’s really not slacking off, it’s just using you time and energy where it has better value.


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