The rail disaster in Lac Mégantic, Quebec is a terrible tragedy, but no sooner had it occurred that there were calls for everything from banning railways from passing through small towns, to preventing the shipping of oil by rail. Proponents of increased oil production and pipelines were quick to point out (correctly) that pipelines are safer than rail. Environmentalists hastened to jump on their own hobby horse, that this disaster highlights our (evil) dependence on oil. When I took command of my company sector in Bosnia, my predecessor gave me words of wisdom which guided me throughout my mission there: First information is usually (always) wrong, and don’t overreact. This wisdom applies to peacekeeping, and certainly also applies in the management of complex situations such as the Lac Mégantic accident.

Even if we decided right now to ship oil only by pipeline in order to move all the new North American production, it would take years to build. In the meantime, the oil has to go somewhere. Barring a return to pre-industrial civilization, there is no way that moderns wish to end their dependence on oil as a highly concentrated, efficient, and effective fuel source. By the same token, acting like a lynch mob and trying to pin the blame on an easy target such as the locomotive engineer or the brash and abrasive CEO of the operator, Rail World, only serve to fuel the flames of retribution. The last thing we need is a hasty decision taken in time of high emotionality and sadness. The head of the Canadian Transportation Safety Board said it best last week: (paraphrasing) It’s tempting to pin the blame on a single person, but these accidents are ALWAYS the result of a complex mix of events and conditions. There are no single solutions and what we need is to learn as much as possible and add the incremental knowledge to the future weighing of risk and opportunity.

What risks are you facing? What uncertainties are there in your assumptions and knowledge of markets, clients, products, employees, and competitors? Do you have contingency plans and risk mitigation measures in place to attenuate the risks?

Richard Martin is a consultant, speaker, and executive coach. He brings his military and business leadership and management experience to bear for executives and organizations seeking to exploit change, maximize opportunity, and minimize risk.

© 2013 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes are permitted with proper attribution.

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