Understanding Gaps

On a cold winter’s morning in Saint Petersburg, the University Professor of General Chemistry was waiting for a sleigh to take him to the railway station.

Dmitri Mendeleev had been working on a chemistry text book and was stuck on how to categorise the elements.  This was 1869; Mancunian John Dalton had already come up with the concept of the atom, and atomic weight; and Swede Jacob Berzelius had established one- or two-letter symbols for the elements and how to create formulae for compounds (e.g. salt is NaCl, water is H2O, etc).

Mendeleev was an inveterate player of Patience, the card game where you group the cards by suit and in order of value.  As he waited for his sleigh that February Monday morning, he remembered a dream where he had seen the elements grouped according to their shared properties, like suits of cards, and ordered by their atomic weight, as if in a game of Patience.  He then created cards with the symbols of the elements and their atomic weights and ordered them as he had seen in the dream.  At the time, there were only 63 known elements, but Mendeleev realised that he had to leave gaps to make the model work. So, he left those gaps, guessing that there must be elements there, and describing their properties.  By and large, his predictions have been fulfilled, and the result is the Periodic Table we now have.

A risk universe does a similar thing.  It is a table of risks listed by category.  Usually the risks are generic (e.g. people), and in performing a risk assessment, you decide whether that risk type applies or not, and then you specify it to the level of  detail relevant to your area of assessment.  The table works as a completeness check: it helps you work out if there are types of risks that are missing, that you have not thought of.  It can also let you order your final table of risks by various types of measurement, within each category.  Those measurements may include impact, proximity (as indicated by data, KRIs,etc), capability (controls/mitigants), capacity, how many other risks it is related to, environmental drivers, etc, or any aggregation of those measures.  The result is a table that explains the world of risk in relation to the company, division, function or process you are assessing in a similar way to how the periodic table explains the world of chemical elements.

 Source: The Economist magazine (on the 150th anniversary of the creation of the periodic table)


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