By Michael Barna, Kepner-Tregoe

As the song goes, the holiday season is the most wonderful time of the year.  But along with standard holiday festivities can come unwanted and unnecessary stress. In the U.S., Thanksgiving is just round one in the end-of-year festivities. So lets reflect on the Thanksgiving preparations just past and let the turkey demonstrate a bit of risk management thinking.

The Kepner-Tregoe approach to managing risk can spare you those tiresome moments of contemplating “why didn’t we think of that?”  This process helps ensure the future success of any situation by identifying what potential problems could happen, why they might occur, and how to prevent them and minimize their impact if they cannot be avoided.  The result is a clear action plan for evading disaster and quickly bouncing back to normal if bad things still occur.  

Risk planning should be a holistic approach to both preventing and containing potential problems.  Too often risk assessments focus on what people will do to fix a situation once problems already have happened, rather than how to prevent negative events in the first place. Let’s try this with the turkey in a holiday article posted on called, “11 ways to save Thanksgiving dinner when everything is going wrong.”

The article is a quick examination of what to do to save the situation in the event of a string of Thanksgiving disasters. However, from a KT perspective, identifying what might go wrong and how to save the day is only 50% of what a complete risk plan should accomplish.  Prior to planning contingent actions to deal with problems, preventive actions should be developed to avoid any problems.  

To expand on the content of the Turkey disaster article, and as a lesson in KT risk management and turkey preparation, here are some examples of how the KT process would supplement the contingent actions in the article by using some proactive planning.

No matter what the occasion, these tips illustrate ways to take the stress out when the pressure is on and offer a glimpse of the thinking behind KT Potential Problem Analysis.

Reproduced from the article:

Disaster: Taking the Turkey out of the freezer wasn’t the problem, remembering to take it out of the oven was.

Solution: When life gives you burnt turkey, turn it into turkey stew, says celebrity party planner Marcy Blum: “If a recipe is ruined, don’t panic! Take a breath and see if there is any way to give it another life as a different dish. For example, if the turkey is dreadfully overcooked, make it into a Southern-style turkey stew. If the chocolate mousse won’t set, add rum and serve it over ice cream!”

The article excerpt above identifies forgetting to remove the turkey from the oven as a potential Thanksgiving dinner disaster.  However this scenario is not the actual potential problem, but rather one likely cause of it.  Why would forgetting to take the turkey out of the oven be a bad thing?   The consequence would be a burnt, overcooked and unpalatable turkey. But lets clarify what the main potential problem is here. In a world of unknowns, there is generally more than one possible cause of a burnt turkey.

Following KT process, burnt turkey is the main potential problem and forgetting to take the turkey from the oven is one likely cause. What else could cause the turkey to burn?   Asking this question prompts a brainstorm of other events that might be more likely to cause a burnt bird than forgetting to open the oven. Multiple scenarios are listed in the table below, better positioning us to generate multiple preventive actions that target each burnt turkey scenario in the most efficient way possible—ultimately lessening the chances of the turkey burning.  We then act on the preventive actions that are the most reasonable and sensible. 

Hellogiggles put forth an excellent suggestion for what to do if the turkey still burned. The KT process would call this a contingent action meant to mitigate a problem’s impact from growing.  As with preventive actions, it is worth brainstorming multiple contingent actions to increase the odds of picking the most viable option.   For each contingent action, we also set a trigger that tells us when it is time to act on this backup plan. Contingencies generally carry more of a cost and are reactive rather than proactive.  While turning burnt turkey into a Southern-style stew avoids wasting the turkey meat and is a great back-up plan, the simple contingent actions ensure a perfectly cooked bird from the start.   Preventive actions like a back-up turkey would also save dinner, but with extra expense, impatient guests and lost time.  

KT Potential Problem Analysis:

Potential Problem

Likely Causes

Preventive Actions

Contingent Actions


The turkey burns

-Forgetting to take the turkey out of the oven.

-The oven temperature is too high.

-If roasting turkey in a bag, the bag could melt and burn if too hot.

-Set multiple timers while cooking the turkey.

-Involve others to help monitor the turkey while cooking.

-Confirm the best temperature to cook the turkey.

-Avoid cooking turkey in a bag.

-Turn burnt turkey into a Southern-style turkey stew.

-Cook a second turkey.

-Buy a pre-cooked turkey.


-A burning smell is coming from the oven.

-The turkey is blackened and smells burnt.

Let’s try again.

Reproduced from the article:

Disaster: It’s a few minutes until dinner time and the turkey is too dry.

Solution: Pour chicken or turkey stock over the slices of turkey and heat it for a few minutes in the oven, recommends Felicia Ramos-Peters of Get Holiday Happy. You can also try the same trick for stuffing that’s dry as well.

A dry turkey can surely stop guests from enjoying their thanksgiving meal.  Again, in taking the time to think of various likely causes for a dry turkey, there are several scenarios that could occur aside from just making one mistake in the recipe.   The turkey could be generally overcooked; the white meat could cook faster than the dark meat; moisture could dissipate from the bird during cooking or the bird could be left exposed for too long, allowing moisture to dry out.   For each of these situations, preventive actions can be taken to reduce the total probability of a dry turkey in any circumstance.   Yet, if the recipe still fails, the contingent actions proposed by the article stand as a firm backup to infuse as much succulence back into the bird as possible.

KT Potential Problem Analysis:

Potential Problem

Likely Causes

Preventive Actions

Contingent Actions


Dry turkey

-The turkey is cooked too long.

-The white meat cooks faster than the dark meat.

-Juices do not accumulate in the breast meat while cooking.

-Moisture seeps out of the turkey when cooking.

-The cooked turkey is left out for too long.

-Confirm cooking time per recipe.

-Roast the turkey upside down.

-Prop up an aluminum foil tent over the turkey for the first hour of cooking.

-Avoid leaving the turkey out and exposed too long prior to consuming (plan around dinner)

-Pour chicken stock over turkey slices and heat in oven for a few minutes


-The turkey tastes dry

-The turkey looks dry

When brain storming potential problems is completed, assign owners to the preventive and contingent actions—a great way to involve your family so everyone can be a superhero in protecting the family party!

Whether it is an upcoming work or family party, or even your usual holiday shopping that needs to go as planned, a bit of solid risk planning can go a long way.  Instead of narrowing your focus on a just a couple events that might happen, broaden your thinking to brainstorm a full list of what could go wrong in any scenario and be clear on the main problem you are trying to prevent.   By listing out multiple likely causes of that problem, you exponentially increase your chances of stopping it from all angles.  The holidays are just beginning and there are many more family dinners to come.  What could go wrong?

KT has a powerful toolkit for root cause analysis and preventing future problems