Older, Wiser and Managing Risks

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When I started out in this business I knew next to nothing about project management.  I was just a kid working in the telecommunications industry then and thought of the work I did as a job, not as a series of small projects.  Even when I moved onto my first project a few years later I knew nothing about project management.  They say that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but it’s not as dangerous as no knowledge whatsoever.

I remember the first time someone sat me down and explained the time-cost-quality triangle.  That was back in 1989.  I’ve worked in project management continuously since then and I’ve learned more than a few things along the way.  One of the most important learnings for me was the value of managing risks.

This wasn’t something that I learned early on and I really wish someone had sat me down and told me the simple truth about risk management; that managing risks is essential to delivering projects on time and on budget.  They could have shaved years off my learning curve and allowed me to deliver successful projects at a much earlier stage.

So what happened that made me adopt risk management approaches on my projects and in the consultancy that I deliver to my clients?  The realisation that most of the risks management that I’d seen up until that point was no more than window dressing, enough to get projects authorised but not enough to play a real part in shaping and driving the project forward.  It took me about ten years before I not only used risk management techniques, but made them an unconscious part of what I do.  Follow these ten tips will help you to make managing risks second nature:

  1. Make the goal obvious and memorable. It’s hard to hit a target when you don’t know what it is.  It is almost impossible to get your team to keep aiming at the target if they forget what the target is.  They may start out in the right direction but as people forget the goal their project goes off on a different path.  If you want to deliver your project successfully you need to make sure everyone knows what your goal is and you have to remind them too.  The easier a project’s goal is to remember, the easier it is to get people to stay focused.  Turn the goal into a poster.  Add it to your email signature.  Include it in your weekly report each week.  Anything to get this into peoples’ minds so it stays there.
  2. Keep the plan simple. It’s hard to understand why people don’t take the time needed to create a plan.  Most people whose plans I see are just drawings created using MS Project.  They look pretty but there’s no real planning behind it and poor planning is in itself a major source of risk.
  3. Communicate the cost of failure to control risks. Tell your key stakeholders what will happen – in business terms – if you fail to control the key risks on your project.  Keep things nice and simple and put a time and/or monetary value on this.  How much more will it cost the project?  How much longer will the project take to deliver?  How much of the planned benefits will you lose?  Once your stakeholders can see the true cost of not managing the risks they’ll be more than happy to support your efforts to manage risks.
  4. Know where the exits are. Give yourself the option to stop the project if it becomes clear that it cannot deliver the expected results.  The most important exit is the one right at the start of the project, before you even get underway, but make sure that you have several points during the project where you are forced to make a conscious decision to continue or quit.  If you can’t deliver the results expected of your project, then stop it.
  5. Get team members talking to each other. Poor communication probably accounts for more problems than anything else in business and project risks are no exception to this rule.  One of the best ways to overcome threats is by sharing information about them and by getting team members to work together to solve them.  Sometimes the threats can easily be dealt with.  A good example of this is one team member knowing that something that they do can help someone else in the team and changing what they do accordingly.  When problems are more complicated, get your team members to sit down together and collaborate on solving the problem.
  6. Highlight the top ten risks always. If you give everyone a clear target to aim at they will be more likely to hit it.  Focus everyone’s’ attention on the top ten risks and get them to work together to eliminate them. Each time you remove the biggest threats to your eventual success your chances of successful delivery will shoot up. The Pareto principle applies here: 20% of your risks will be responsible for 80% of your eventual problems, setbacks and delays.
  7. Remember than prevention is better than cure. It is usually cheaper and easier to deal with the causes of risks than the effects, so focus your risk management activities on things that will stop the risk from occurring.
  8. Have a backup plan in advice. The best time to create a plan is before you need it.  Trying to create a backup plan when you’re already in trouble is just asking for even more trouble.  Your project will lose momentum and you’ll never make up for the time you lost.
  9. Never stop looking for new risks. The moment you think you know where the risks are, you’ll get bitten on the behind by a new one.  Keep an eye out for risks throughout your project, evaluate them and develop plans for dealing with them.
  10. Be positive, even when things are going wrong. Despite everything that you do to control the risks on your project, sometimes you’ll fail to stop something from going horribly wrong.  If you meet challenges and potential failures with a positive spirit you’re more likely to get through them than if you don’t.  Even better, you’ll boost the spirits of those around so that they are more likely to get you through hard times.

If you follow these ten tips you’ll move from being a manager of projects to a manager of risks and save yourself both years and tears.