There was an interesting article in this month’s (April 2012) issue of PMI’s PM Journal which detailed a study researching the differences in risk management focus between project managers and project owners (the role of the project owner goes beyond the typical project funding or authorization role that is played by project sponsors).
I felt little surprise in their finding that project managers tended to focus on identifying, communicating and managing risks that impacted their project’s constraints – this was termed tactical risk management. What was a little unexpected was that project owners also appeared to be mostly focused on tactical risks and were not spending more of their risk mind share on uncertainties that mattered to the short or longer term realization of project benefits – this was denoted as strategic risk management by the authors.
This could be related to the (generally) low level of project risk maturity in many organizations or industries, but it could also relate to the following two common factors:
- Project owners may have developed or have had significant input into the business case for their projects, and while they might have done a good job of capturing the potential benefits of these projects, they may not have invested sufficient effort in considering the factors that could influence (threats or opportunities) the realization of these benefits. This sense of false optimism gets reinforced in those organizations that do not track achieved benefits beyond a project’s lifetime and incorporate this tracking into annual performance evaluations.
- The squeaky wheel gets the grease. In a low risk maturity organization, if the only regular mention of risks originates from project managers, that will tend to anchor the level at which project owners will operate. This gets further aggravated in those organizations that live milestone-to-milestone – through the project life cycle, if the team and project owner’s focus is purely on achieving the next milestone, risks that may be realized past a project’s completion may be missed or worse, ignored.
While it is true that accountability for risk management related to the realization of project benefits lies with project owners, project managers can influence the shift to more strategic thinking.
Here are some ideas that might get the ball rolling:
- Involve project owners on a regular basis in risk identification and analysis activities and force them to go beyond the triple constraint. Ask the question “Let’s say our project completes on time, on budget and delivers the expected scope at expected quality levels – will we still deliver the change that the organization was expecting?”
- Work with project owners to define expected project benefits or performance measures in as quantitative or defensible a manner as possible. The more objective the measures, the simpler it will be to understand events that could influence them positively or negatively.
- Report on the expected outcomes for the project as a routine health indicator alongside the more traditional (e.g. cost or schedule variance) indicators.
- Allocate time during regular project meetings for the project owner to provide the team and other stakeholders with an update on what is being done to ensure achievement of expected outcomes.
With some extra effort on the part of project managers, strategic risk management might become another case of “Monkey see, monkey do”!
Agile continues to be a hot topic in mainstream project management publications and events and most organizations have shifted from debating whether or not to explore agile practices to evaluating the success they’ve had with their use.
As I’ve discussed in previous articles on the subject, agile requires a cultural and personal change more than the introduction of any specific set of practices, hence it is quite common to find companies that feel they are being agile when in reality, nothing has really changed. I would compare this to the how most people practice an organized religion. A devotee may go through the motions of following the rules of a religion without really embracing the meaning behind the implementation. Worse, the advocates for the religion may themselves focus more on form than on intent – they may talk the talk, but rarely do they truly walk the walk. This unfortunately is the risk inherent to any set of principles that are realized through a specific methodology.
So what are some symptoms that can help you identify a “shallow” adoption of agile principles within your company?
- The number of formal sign-offs or hand-offs between departments or between project teams and customers has not decreased.
- The quantity or size of project by-products (e.g. documentation) has not decreased and these by-products continue to be used by teams as a measure of progress.
- Daily scrums take up most of the morning.
- Sprint velocity would be better termed lethargy.
- Reflection or refactoring activities have become finger-pointing and “start from scratch” sessions.
- Project managers continue to serve as information middlemen instead of encouraging a reduction in communication distance between key project participants.
- The use of proxies for the customer is the rule, not the exception.
Perhaps what we need is someone to help us avoid these traditional pitfalls of adopting agile by learning to truly embrace pragmatic but applicable principles. “Knowing is not enough, we must apply” – Bruce Lee
I always found the narrative in the tape scenes in the Mission: Impossible TV movies amusing: “Your mission SHOULD you choose to accept it…” The word “should” implies a choice that IMF team leaders and project managers rarely are able to take advantage of.
This is not the only analogy that could be drawn between the series and the life of a project manager so let me present a few more points of similarity.
- “As always, should you or any of your I.M. Force be caught or killed, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions.” – Project managers are often the scapegoats for projects that failed long before they were assigned.
- Infinite diversity in infinite combinations – while the IMF team leader had some discretion in choice of resources for a given mission, many times he was provided specific team members, some of whom did not play nice with each other, and yet, would still have to plan and execute a successful mission. This was the most apparent in the first movie where Ethan Hunt is able to get his three team members to execute the Langley file retrieval in spite of the fact that two of the three were actually plotting against him!
- If you fail to plan, you plan to fail – although the missions handed to the teams are usually quite challenging, the series regularly showed the benefits of the planning work done to achieve success.
- The team leader shouldn’t lead from behind – while the average project manager won’t be expected to scale the sides of the Burj Khalifa, Ethan Hunt’s willingness to pitch in and apply his specialized skills to the mission while not undermining the role and skills of his team demonstrates a degree of balance that is sometimes missed by PMs.
- Be like water – okay, this one is a stretch, but the use of those amazing face masks in both the series and the movies is a good reminder that successful project managers do need to adapt to a situation and should sometimes be chameleons.
- No peace for the wicked – at the conclusion of the first movie, when Ethan is looking forward to some much needed downtime, he is presented with a new mission. This should sound familiar to most PMs who lament the lack of a break between projects!
This tape will self-destruct in five seconds. Good luck, fellow PM!