A recent article by Uzma Khan and Daniella Kupor in Harvard Business Review adds support to the argument for keeping things simple when it comes to communicating risks.
Through a series of experiments focused on positive and negative risks, the authors determined that there is a greater likelihood of individuals making an objective, logical decision when a single significant impact is presented as opposed to when that same impact is presented along with a number of other lower impact outcomes.
In their own words “Thus, adding prizes that make a sweepstakes objectively more valuable ends up decreasing the sweepstakes’ perceived value. Similarly, noting smaller side effects that make the drug objectively more dangerous can in fact make it appear less dangerous by making the larger side effect seem even less likely to happen. This biases us against taking positive risks and avoiding negative ones.”
How might this sort of bias be relevant to our understanding of project risk management?
Recognizing that risk owners are frequently reluctant to commit time or political influence to actively responding to a risk, we might be tempted to try to stack the deck in our favor by communicating multiple potential impacts which might result if the risk gets realized.
By doing this, we might actually diminish the perceived threat or opportunity presented by the risk resulting in risk owners responding in the exact opposite manner than what we had hoped for.
To avoid this, while it is a good idea to capture complete information in our risk registers, when presenting risks to stakeholders, focus on communicate the single impact which presents the greatest threat or opportunity. Then, if you don’t get the buy-in you were hoping for, add weight to your argument by sharing other potential impacts.
As the authors state “…when it comes to helping people evaluate risk, less is more.“