Question during a Project Management workshop:
“Will this course make me less risk-averse?”
Answer: “It could. The workshop doesn’t make risk go away – It gives you tools to manage it.”
Well, the workshop didn’t work.
Same person, two days later:
“Thank you very much for this course. Now I know I never want to get anywhere near Project Management.”
That risk-averse person was unusual only in his candor. Most of us avoid risk, and even walk around or away from the possibility of facing it. Why endure pain if you can escape it?
The very mention of risk often is enough to kill an idea or initiative:
“That’s pretty risky, isn’t it?”
“Yeah. I guess so. Let’s just forget it.”
No, don’t forget it. Evaluate it. What is the likely payoff if it works? How does that match up vs. the potential damage if it doesn’t? And what’s the opportunity cost of not trying?
It’s that prospect of pain or failure that stops so many good things from even being attempted. We should never let such an unexamined emotional state direct our decisions.
Risk management is a sensible, doable system for engaging and overcoming risk – but you have to be minimally daring, enough to believe you can make it work.
Experience proves that most anticipated problems diminish or evaporate if we actually confront them. Mark Twain probably never said this, but it’s a fine quote anyway: “I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.”
The project manager employs risk management, engaging the situation with an attitude of careful inquiry, not tense combat.
What are the facts in the existing circumstance? What are the specifics of the outcome I plan to achieve? What in the current state is positive for my intention, and what is negative? What are the threats to my purpose, and potential threats?
Those are the most basic matters affecting the launch of a project. Their character generally is poorly known, sometimes to the point that they are mere shadows in a fuzzy landscape. If they aren’t thoroughly examined, they stay shadowy, fuzzy . . . and threatening.
Risk aversion is the equivalent of being scared of the dark. If you can’t get yourself to get up and walk to the bathroom, or at least turn on the light, you are risk averse.
If, instead, you operate a workmanlike method of objective, progressive examination, you’re practicing the first stage of project management. Then you link it with a thoroughly controlled trial-and-error process.
If the thing is hopeless, or if it threatens to blow up in your face, you will find that out early on, without being harmed.
It is well established that the simple act of focusing on a logical process dissipates the negative emotion that drives risk aversion.
Risk, most simply described, is the possibility that your initiative will fail. If you’re risk averse, your early planning behavior almost guarantees trouble.
A common cause of project failure is sloppy conduct of the first activities – when the examination of the situation is incomplete, hurriedly done or skipped entirely. None of those errors is very rare in project situations of my experience. These are self-inflicted risk events.
The plan too often is built on glib assumptions, fond wishes or strong opinions. The politics of organizations may push the project manager to accept convictions from above rather then develop sound expectations from the ground up.
So the first big risk for any project can be generated by the sponsoring organization.
This is a political issue, and it challenges the diplomatic skills of the project manager right up front. Your first job is to talk the boss into reining in the rush and doing a proper startup . . . because if you go along you wind up as the designated fall guy for the mess that ensues.
A related risk, one even more pervasive and damaging, is the failure of the key stakeholders to fully and honestly share their intentions, negotiate firm commitments – and keep them.
At the executive level of the sponsoring organization, there often are differing priorities, and even enmities, that the project manager discovers only when some chasm opens up.
Some senior managers whose active support is desperately needed may decide one day to redirect their resources to some new imperative.
And there just is the general problem of identifying, obtaining and keeping the human, financial, material and technical resources required to adequately staff and supply the effort. That’s a big risk.
The longer the project goes, the more serious the danger becomes.
For all those reasons, plus innumerable others, the wise project manager devotes serious attention to what is said and demonstrated, what is proposed, questioned and unclear, at the very beginning (prebeginning?) of the project.
This project manager asserts a role perhaps above his/her role status, conducting open and meaningful conversations to surface and safely settle those potential hot spots.
The task-oriented leader who plunges prematurely, sleeves well rolled, into the nuts and bolts is asking for it.
You do the politics. However impatient you might be to get at it, you have to keep the leash on while you negotiate a strong set of agreements and build a stable communication network.
All the risks to be managed within the project work packages are secondary to those up front. Too many project managers paper over the initial challenges in the interest of the more easily attained satisfactions of project work itself.
If you’re averse to self-inflicted project failure, look to the project launch for your cure.
Question: When projects of your experience worked well, how strong a base was set before project activities began?
Projects: What Do You Mean, Success?