Apparently, earlier this month, a mountain lion snuck onto the grounds of the LA zoo, killed, and then ate one of the zoo’s 11 koala bears. The big cat was captured by both still and video imaging the night of the kill, and the remains of the koala were found hundreds of yards away, though the actual attack was not captured. However this attack happened, the perpetrator would have had to scale (or leap) an 8-foot fence with the koala in tow in order to leave the carcass where it was found so far outside the enclosure. When I read this, after my initial astonishment, I couldn’t help but wonder what immediate lessons can be taken away from this unexpected event:

Strange things happen!
It is almost always a truism that, no matter how much you plan, something can come out of “left field” and wreak havoc. Whether it is a frozen O-ring that nobody wants to bring up (who wants to interfere with such a momentous occasion?), or a watertight bulkhead that isn’t extended up to the decks (isn’t the ship “unsinkable?”), we have seen many instances where the “unthinkable” or “unlikely” have created huge disasters. While it is impossible to examine or consider all contingencies, and some are certainly so remote as to not warrant the time and effort needed to consider them, (maybe a comet will come and hit the earth next week?), effective risk analysis is critical. In this case, it is certainly not out of the realm of reasonableness to wonder if the zoo staff considered the immediately adjacent predatory fauna when considering the height of the exhibit pen walls? (Or, also, when deciding to leave the koalas out in their pen at night?) If not, why not?

Assumptions are dangerous!
Just as assuming that an 8-foot fence would be big enough to prevent a predator from interfering with the animals within the exhibit, there may have also been assumptions made about the fact that koalas are not the natural prey of mountain lions, so perhaps they would be left alone. There is also the “it hasn’t happened before, so it won’t happen now” syndrome. Using another zoo example, this reminds me of the assumption by the San Francisco zoo that, because a tiger hadn’t leapt out of its 12.5 foot enclosure in the past, that people were safe…. Which was true until Dec. 2007, with fatal consequences….

There are powerful forces arrayed against you !
No matter how fully we think we understand or grasp Mother Nature, we are bound to have an incomplete picture. The forces that surround us daily, such as weather, fauna, the laws of physics, even the behavior of people, are nearly always bound to be only partially understood – and therefore only partially predictable. Plus, you only have to let your guard down once for disaster to strike. Put bluntly: Nature doesn’t care whether you have considered it or not….

Pre-mortem risk analysis can almost always help!
We all should strive to do a better job of realistically assessing the risks and forces around us when making important decisions. Managers should encourage all employees to perform a “pre-mortem.” Harvard Business Review has a good summary of a pre-mortem:
Many organizations don’t do this, because there is an inherent stigma against any kind of thinking that could be perceived as “negative.” I encourage managers to reframe their own thoughts about this. I disagree with the notion that proactively considering a hypothetical disaster, and potentially preventing its subsequent catastrophic outcome, is negative. Quite the contrary! Encouraging those around us to identify all the things that could go wrong with a project, (even the most unlikely events or forces!) and fostering an environment of up-front problem solving and open communication can minimize the need for having to do a post-mortem – such as the one that is currently being done for the poor koala.