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How to avoid event disasters: 8 risk management principles to add to your event management practices

by | Sep 6, 2014 | Business, Business Management, Event Management

I was talking the other day with my good friend Terry Hardy, a highly respected system safety and risk management consultant who has worked for NASA and the FAA, and we were discussing a system safety book he was reading. He mentioned an example from the book about a 2005 amphibious plane crash in Miami that was caused by wing failure, precipitated very small fatigue cracks in the plane’s wing that were not noticed by maintenance personnel or detected by FAA inspectors.

My first thought was “I’m never getting on a water plane ever again.”

My second thought was how similar flying an airplane is to planning and managing events. Each has thousands of moving parts and processes and potentially dozens of team members, and all these elements and systems must work together properly to ensure a safe landing (literally for the plane, figuratively for your events). And sometimes it only takes a loose bolt or a small oversight by a tired employee or contractor to start a disastrous and irreversible domino effect.

So I read through some of Terry’s insightful risk management articles and found eight principles that every event professional should apply to your event management practices.

1. Reducing risk is a team effort

Just as amazing events are not produced and pulled off by a single person, reducing risk is also a team endeavor. Each person has a set of responsibilities that must be clearly spelled out from the outset of the planning process. And one of those responsibilities is to look for potential flaws or issues and account for them in their preparations.

2. Your team is only as strong as its weakest link

You may be great at seeing flaws in your plans and sniffing out potential disasters. But how about that intern who you put in charge of the entertainment and lighting? Or the new caterer you just hired because they were the low bid?

You must be aware of where your weak links may potentially reside; give extra attention to these areas; and even create contingency plans in case those people or processes don’t come through. And speaking of contingency plans…

3. Build in redundancy and backups wherever possible

Every experienced event planner knows the value of backup plans. If you’re managing an outdoor event, have a plan for inclement weather. If the keynote speaker is sick, have a backup in town who can more than adequately cover for them.

Planning Pod can help you reduce risk for your events or venue by helping you create a streamlined system for your planning process and giving you and your team a place to collaborate, share insights and provide feedback.

Try Planning Pod free for 14 days and see why thousands of event professionals use it every day.

You can even create redundancy in your planning processes, like backing up your event planning details online in case your computer crashes (shameless plug alert … this is never an issue if you use Planning Pod) or having two or more co-workers check each other’s work or be involved in planning important details.

4. Look for holes in your plans, systems and logic

A great point in one of Terry’s risk management posts  is about approaching your work with a healthy skepticism. Skepticism in this respect does not mean being negative or pessimistic. Rather, it means that you should be inquisitive and not accept simple answers.

Asking lots of questions and digging deeper makes your team members will consider alternatives and reflect on their own assumptions and processes, which hopefully will mitigate risks. But it also gets you in the mode of being constantly on guard and reluctant to assume things will just go smoothly. They will only go smoothly once you have identified all the potential flaws in your event planning processes and systems and addressed them adequately.

5. Set priorities and focus on high-risk items

Granted, in some cases it may not be feasible to create a backup plan for every little thing that can go wrong in an event. So it’s also important in your event management processes to identify two types of items:

  1. Those items that would cause the biggest impact if they were to go south. For example, spoiled food from a subpar caterer would be more detrimental to the success of an event than if the venue had dirty restrooms. Neither is desirable, but one is dramatically worse than the other; people won’t remember the dirty bathrooms (and most guys won’t even notice), but they will all remember getting sick on the bad shrimp at the Acme company picnic.
  2. Those items that are most likely to cause problems. The entertainment vendor that your client wanted but who is known to hit the bar one too many times before performing is a much higher risk than the stable DJ you have hired over and over again because of his reliability.

6. Beware of the expert

Yes, that’s you. You are an expert at what you do, which can also make you a risk factor. How? For starters, experts in all professions can get complacent. You have planned loads of events and have seen “practically everything,” so you know what to expect and know what will probably go wrong. Until the unexpected suddenly happens and you have no backup or contingency because you never planned on it. This is where success can actually work against you.

Experts also rely on our own internal processing and often do not ask for outside input because we know what we are doing and our approach has pretty much always worked (I’m guilty of this myself). This internal processing may in fact have flaws or be incomplete, but we aren’t aware of it because we haven’t asked for feedback. And maybe things have worked out in the past because we’ve just been fortunate. As Terry says, “Sometimes it’s hard to tell if you’re lucky or smart.”

The moral here is to never assume you know everything and expect – and plan for – the unexpected.

7. Take care of the small things

Nary a year goes by when one or more plane crashes are attributed to a loose bolt somewhere on the plane that fell out and caused a domino effect leading to engine failure or prop or flap malfunction.

Likewise in event planning, small errors or omissions can bring everything to a screeching halt, from a malfunctioning projector to a misplaced car key that significantly delays delivery of food or people.

Event planners almost always sweat the details; that is why people hire you and why you are great at what you do. But like all of us, it’s easy to get swept up in the rush of work, especially when your lead times are getting shorter and you have less time to plan. So while the rest of the world wants you to speed up, you need to remind yourself to slow down enough to make sure you are attending to the small things.

8. There is no boilerplate approach to reducing risk

Every event is different and has different variables. Different client, different attendees, different venue, different vendors. And although it is good practice to have lots of templated checklists and processes to guide you in managing the event (which you can create and manage with Planning Pod), you should be aware that risks and potential issues will also be unique to each event.

When we need to be, human beings are rather adaptive creatures, and your approach to managing risk at your events should also be adaptive and take into consideration all the variables at play. So if a certain event has more transportation requirements for moving guests from venue to venue, then devote more of your time to ensure that that process and those vendors are prepared for anything.

Thanks to Terry for all his great ideas, and feel free to provide your feedback and insights in the comments below.