Project Management Institute

Blind Spots

What's Missing from Your Risk Management Techniques?

Getting It Done | PROJECT MANAGEMENT IN ACTION

By Robert Barger, PMP

It's risk management 101: You've probably been taught to identify all possible risks, document them, communicate them and develop a plan for handling them.

But this traditional risk management approach rests on the assumptions that you can identify all possible risks and that only these pre-identified risks will materialize. In reality, there are limits to what you can anticipate, and unanticipated issues can occur. Risk management 201 is about preparing for what can come next.

Satisfy the Sponsor

I was once involved in a large implementation involving an unreliable piece of software. We had tested all possible use cases, performed incrementally progressive launches and did everything else we could to try to ensure the implementation would go smoothly. But the sponsor was still very worried, as the software suite had a mixed reputation and the final implementation involved a large number of users, including senior management.

After the final implementation had been scheduled, the sponsor began asking a stream of “what if” questions. Rather than give her false reassurances, I started to think beyond specific possible problems into how we could be prepared for something unexpected. Eventually, we decided on a set of automatic “kill switch” responses in the event that certain types of unanticipated problems arose during implementation. Secondly, we agreed on a series of touch points throughout the implementation weekend with status metrics and expectations. For example, we would automatically roll back the code change if any issue:

• impacted a certain number of users

• impacted particular business units

• wasn't resolved by a specific day and time

If other issues arose, we agreed to discuss them on an ad hoc basis. And we set dedicated times to talk throughout the weekend. In other words, we began to go beyond the risk list and toward a state of being prepared for any sort of serious glitch.

Adjust Your Behaviors

Being prepared for anything means having a strategy for risk resolution. And it requires three foundational behaviors that support resolving any possible problem: confidence, communication and collaboration.

Confidence comes from the understanding that “yes, you can.” It's realizing that the answer to the problem does exist and you will find it. You have a background of making good choices and being able to justify your decisions. You also have a background of being able to pull the team together and move through obstacles together.

Communication is a project manager's forte—and it helps ensure a universal understanding about what is being implemented and who is impacted. You should be sure sponsors stay informed and have time to communicate any upcoming changes to eliminate surprises. Communication also involves making sure the implementation team is ready and that you have contact information for all resources, with a plan to check in periodically. Your risk planning should include behaviors and practices that build strong lines of communication in every direction outward, because communicating the need is the next step in any issue resolution.

Collaboration with technical, business and sponsorship resources will help you solve problems that cannot or have not been anticipated. You should build strategic and valuable working relationships ahead of time that will help support the project in its hour of need. Identify the experts and the key decision makers, then determine where they will be during implementation and how you will contact them if needed. Get to know the people performing critical tasks and develop positive working relationships with them so that you don't have to both build a relationship and overcome an obstacle at the same time. Your risk planning should already be full of strong working relationships because you simply can't do it all by yourself.

You can be intentional about the behaviors that will help your project achieve success.

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You can't plan for everything, but you can plan for anything. There is no way for you to come up with a roadmap that addresses every possible outcome. However, you can be intentional about the behaviors that will help your project achieve success. Of course, you should actively explore all possible risks your project could face and develop a tangible documented plan for each of the items you come up with. But, more importantly, your planning also should include intentional and purposeful communication, collaboration and the confidence of knowing that whatever problem might arise, a solution can be found. PM

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Robert Barger, PMP, is a senior project manager and associate director for HMB Information System Developers, Columbus, Ohio, USA.

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