Posts Tagged With: Risk management

Let’s add a few tools to your risk identification tool belt!

Risk identification is our first step towards converting unknown-unknowns to known-unknowns. It is neither possible nor advisable to identify all risks which could impact your project’s objectives – like any other project planning process, too much is as bad as too little. But how do we know that we’ve done enough risk identification?

To increase confidence that we’ve identified a reasonable set of risks, we should lift a page out of good estimation practices by utilizing multiple methods. I’m not encouraging you to pull out your copy of the PMBOK® Guide, flip to Chapter 11, and use each of the inputs, tools & techniques from the Identify Risks process but there is a benefit in looking beyond those tried & true friends, the scope baseline and expert judgment.

From the day you learn about a project, assumptions are made by you, your team and key stakeholders which will affect planning and execution outcomes. An effective project manager is an inquiring project manager. When estimates are elicited, designs get drafted and resources get reserved we should always ask what assumptions were made as well as what the impact will be if those assumptions are proven to be invalid. Key assumptions should be placed on a watch-list so that they can be periodically revisited and proactively validated.

If your company has mature retrospective practices, a quick review of a lessons repository might help to identify risks which had been missed. But what if lessons learned is an oxymoron in your company? In that case, exploit your network and request the historical issue logs from recent projects which appear to have any key areas of commonality with your project. Such overlaps could include scope elements, technology components, or delivery partners. While the majority of the issues might not be relevant to your project, the vital few might not only help you identify new risks but might also provide some useful empirical data to support quantitative risk analysis.

Your project likely has dependencies on activities or resources from other projects. While your team might have identified delays to these key external dependencies as risks, have you taken the time to look at the macro-level changes within and outside of your company? Why not meet with the keepers of your company’s enterprise and portfolio risk registers to identify any threats or opportunities within those repositories which could impact your project?

Juliette Binoche could have been speaking about risk identification rather than acting when she said “Acting is like peeling an onion. You have to peel away each layer to reveal another.”

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Categories: Project Management | Tags: , | 2 Comments

How comical is your project?

Frequent readers of my blog will know how much I respect Scott Adams’s unique insights into the dysfunctions of corporate life. Let’s analyze the case study provided in today’s comic strip!

Risk (mis)management

The pointy-haired boss who serves as a constant reminder of the validity of the Peter Principle expresses surprise about the bumpiness of their white-water team-building project.

A modicum of effective risk management might have caused him to utilize an avoid risk response by picking a slightly less adventurous event although with that group it is hard to envision what would be a perfectly safe one!

If there was still a desire to take the group white-water rafting, then perhaps investing in life vests for those who couldn’t swim would have been a reasonable risk mitigation response, although as the boss indicates in the last frame of the strip, there would likely have been a corresponding higher cost for implementing this response.

While the boss uses ignorance as his rationale, there is no excuse for not practicing risk management commensurate to the level of complexity and uncertainty of a given project.

Avoiding assumptions analysis

An assumption is stated in the sixth frame by the pointy-haired boss about Ted’s ability to swim. That assumption germinated a key risk – if Ted was NOT able to swim and fell in, he’d require more assistance than a competent swimmer and hence the team’s decision to not look for him was unwise. Had the boss conducted a quick elicitation of assumptions and had the team challenge those assumptions which could have been proactively validated, Ted might not be missing.

Project managers have a responsibility to ask their team members and key stakeholders what assumptions are being made as plans are defined, incorporate those assumptions as inputs into risk identification, and schedule reminders to validate those assumptions as the project progresses.

The glamour of groupthink

The fourth and seventh frames of the comic strip confirm that the team members are complicit in the project’s failure. While team consensus was achieved with the decision to not look for Ted after he fell in and then again later by pretending that he never participated, it is quite likely that Asok or Dilbert, who are two characters who usually act as the conscience of the narrative, would not have agreed with these decisions but were likely concerned about rocking the boat (or white-water raft!).

While project managers are expected to recognize the symptoms of groupthink so that it can be nipped in the bud, a more effective countermeasure is to encourage healthy conflict as one the team’s ground rules so that individual team members don’t shy away from speaking up if they believe the wrong decision is being made.

Oscar Wilde – Life imitates art far more than art imitates life

 

Categories: Project Management | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

Who is the Cassandra on YOUR project?

I’m currently reading Richard A. Clarke and R. P. Eddy’s book Warnings which analyzes a number of cases where a credible subject matter expert raised concerns proactively about a looming catastrophe but was ignored until it was too late to take preventative action.

The authors refer to these unfortunate prognosticators as “Cassandras” in reference to the Greek mythology tale of the princess of Troy, Cassandra, who was cursed by Apollo to see into the future but to be ridiculed by those she tried to warn of impending disaster. Through the analysis of past tragedies the authors have developed a four part assessment to identify potential Cassandras including the nature of their warnings, the characteristics of the decision makers who have the power to act on the warnings, attributes of the Cassandras themselves and those of their critics.

So while this might make for an interesting read, what relevance does this have to project management?

Donald Rumsfeld brought the phrase “unknown unknowns” into the mainstream with his February 2002 response to a question about the evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq: “…We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.

But are such risks really “unknown unknowns”? On any project involving a reasonable number of stakeholders, surely there was someone with the imagination and creativity to have been able to surface issues which were not identified through project risk management practices.

The failure to do so might be because of one of the following factors listed in the book:

  • Initial occurrence syndrome: if a given risk has never been realized within the collective awareness of the stakeholders participating in risk identification, the tendency is to believe that it will never occur.
  • Erroneous consensus: if the culture of the team is to value harmony over healthy dissent, while one team member might have the foresight to identify a radical risk, if the consensus of the remaining team members is that this is not a concern, the Cassandra will be unwilling to push their point.
  • Invisible obvious: a lack of diversity within a team can increase the potential for groupthink. If we think of individual experience and knowledge as sets in a Venn diagram, we would ideally want to cover as much area as possible while still having some areas of commonality. The lower the diversity in a team, the greater the alignment of the collective sets and hence the greater the area of no knowledge.

In last week’s article I provided one possible glimpse into the future of our profession. A benefit of computer assisted project management might be a vast reduction in unknown unknowns if we choose to follow our AI’s guidance. Until then it is our responsibility as project managers to build diverse teams and to actively listen for the Cassandras within them.

Categories: Project Management | Tags: , , , | 3 Comments

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