Prevention, Risk Mitigation and the Importance of Word Choice

Holly Maher

Like most of you, I have been glued to the news coverage about the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) over the past several weeks. The discussion has focused on the spread across the globe, the impact and potential impacts on the economy and our normal, daily lives, and guidance on what we should be doing to protect ourselves. As someone who talks about risk and problem solving for a living, something I’ve noticed about the media coverage is the use of the word “mitigation.” I appreciate the use of this word because it helps clarify “prevent” and “prevention.”

Here’s why: when discussing a problem, people use the word prevent as a synonym for eliminate. It’s not. This can be a time-consuming, argument-inducing communication trap. Unfortunately, it is a common trap that problem-solving teams fall into when discussing solutions.

How “Prevent” Can Cause Miscommunication

While prevent is commonly used when discussing possible solutions for an issue, it tends to be used and interpreted to mean eliminate.

If someone asks, “How can we prevent this issue in the future?” They typically mean, and what the audience typically hears, is: “How can we eliminate the potential for this issue in the future?” We tend to be looking for a solution that makes it all go away. When a solution is proposed that only reduces the risk of a problem, some people will argue that it’s not a good solution because the problem could still happen. But that argument ignores the concept of risk. Prevention, also known as problem solving, is about significantly reducing the risk of something occurring. In a system, risk cannot be zero.

Prevention is done in degrees, but people mistakenly use it to say the problem has been eliminated. When tackling problems, people typically use absolutes like solved or not solved and right or wrong, but that language oversimplifies the issue and misses the basics of risk and reliability. Unfortunately, there is a risk of contracting COVID-19. It has not been eradicated. We don’t have a vaccine for it… yet. And even if there was a vaccine, vaccines are not 100 percent effective in all cases.

The word prevent can become a communication trap when discussing problems because the term is misused. People use it to argue over the validity or effectiveness of a possible solution. One team member suggests a possible solution idea, and someone else on the team responds, “That won’t prevent it.” Normally, it is said as a challenge to the idea or as an effort to direct the conversation to a different solution idea. This can quickly become a debate or even an argument. Another way that people tend to use prevent during a solutions discussion is to throw up their hands in frustration and say, “There is nothing we can do to prevent this!” What they mean is that there are no solutions that eliminate the risk.

Let’s give this a try. If I asked you, “How can we prevent automobile fatalities?”, what would your answer be? In your head, did you just answer, “Stop driving”? So, what you heard when I asked that question was, “How can we eliminate automobile fatalities?” Therefore, your answer was, “Stop driving.” You may have even thought, “There is nothing we can do to prevent automobile fatalities.” Both of those responses make sense based on the common misinterpretation that prevent means to eliminate.

Shifting from Elimination to Risk Mitigation

And this is where we get back to the word mitigation. When we are trying to problem solve what we are really looking for are solutions that reduce or mitigate the risk. This applies to any type of problem within an organization from reducing the rate of a virus spreading to lowering the number of car accidents to preventing safety accidents at work.

When I asked the question, “How can we prevent automobile fatalities?” what I was really asking was “How can we reduce the risk for automobile fatalities?” Asking it this way, using the words reduce or mitigate risk, solicits different responses like: “Don’t text and drive,” “Wear your seatbelt,” and, “Drive the speed limit.” These solution ideas are easier to identify because we moved away from the idea of elimination and embraced the concept of risk reduction. This is what your organization is looking for during your problem-solving efforts and incident investigations. What can we do to reduce the risk of this issue in the future?

Can you get to zero risk of automobile fatalities? Yes, by eliminating all automobiles, you can get to zero risk of vehicle fatalities. But unless your organization is willing eliminate the system, there will be risk. There is a risk of safety incidents, environmental issues, production problems, reliability challenges, customer complaints, etc. But your problem-solving efforts can lead you to solution ideas that can reduce, mitigate, manage or buy down the risk of those issues in the future. For COVID-19, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) has recommended mitigation strategies, also known as solutions. They don’t eliminate the risk, they lower it. The following actions help prevent someone from contracting the virus, but they don’t guarantee you won’t get it:

  1. Clean your hands often
  2. Avoid close contact
  3. Stay home if you are sick
  4. Cover coughs and sneezes
  5. Wear a facemask if you are sick
  6. Clean and disinfect

If air travel allows the virus to spread quickly another solution may be to halt domestic air travel for a period of time. Depending on the potential impact to society, all solutions are on the table right now.

Challenge for Your Team

For your problems at work, give this a try in the future. When you are discussing solution ideas with your teams, don’t ask, “What can we do to eliminate this?” Instead, ask, “What can we do to mitigate the risk?”, “What can we do to reduce the likelihood?” or “What can we do to reduce the consequences?” I think these questions are more effective and efficient at getting to the solutions your organization is really looking for.

If you need help facilitating an incident, we offer a variety of remote and online options. Please feel free to reach out to our ThinkReliability office at 281-412-7766 to schedule one of our several different process improvement services including root cause analysis facilitation, work process enhancement and reliability consulting. Request a quote today.

Register for our upcoming Cause Mapping Root Cause Analysis Online Public Workshop

Share This Post With A Friend


Similar Posts

Facilitate Better Investigations | Attend a Webinar