Project management, Risk and uncertainty, Working practices

Hiding from risk

Photo by Chris McBrien What do you do if a risk is too controversial to admit to? I was discussing this with a friend the other day: he knew a CEO who wanted the forthcoming product to be “punchy” and “expressing our values” and “not like some of the other things we’ve done in the past”. These are very vague ideas, but CEO was not inclined to elaborate, because what he meant was so obvious (to him).

Upsetting the CEO is a very real risk in this scenario, but the people involved thought they would upset their boss if they expressed it as an explicit project risk.

Hiding from a risk is a very dangerous thing to do. Simply not admitting it won’t make it any less likely to occur, and may actually prevent you coming up with any avoidance strategies.

That said, it’s probably also unhelpful thinking of a risk as a discrete event, or indeed something that is entirely negative. My friend Matthew Leitch stresses the importance of thinking of “uncertainties” instead, which can be positive and negative.

In the example above, the CEO’s mood is an uncertainty – it may be positive or negative. And it’s not a discrete event, either – it may change over time.

Dealing with uncertainty, as I’ve said before, can be best managed by changing your on-going process rather than through a separate task. In this scenario it would be valuable to involve the CEO throughout the development process so his mood can be checked and he doesn’t have any surprises. I know project managers who, when this tactic fails because the CEO doesn’t provide the diary space, would park themselves outside his door and wait for him to emerge. Either way there is no pressing need to write down the risk or uncertainty—managing stakeholders is a part of everyday life.

As for not admitting to the uncertainty in person, I’ve worked with enough sales people to know that even difficult messages can be expressed positively. In this case the message is “We, your loyal staff, want to make sure you’re happy.” And that’s a very positive message to convey.

Photo by Chris McBrien

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