Planning, Risk and uncertainty

More effective risk workshops

Photo by Hermann KaserA common part of the traditional risk management process is to run a risk workshop. This typically involves getting a group of stakeholders together at the start of a project, and asking what might go wrong. Not only is it a good thing to seek out problems before they happen, it is constructive if we can maintain a sense of openness where people feel able to highlight potential problems without fear of reprisal.

But while it’s a good exercise, there’s always the possibility to do better. I can think of a couple of holes to plug.

For one thing, as I’ve written before, it’s misleading to regard “risks” as single, separate things. We can easily end up with unhelpful risk registers, with projects that still manage to go wrong. Therefore asking people for specific things that go wrong will miss the generalities of systemic failure. We need to do some extra work to turn the specific “risks” into wider issues that we can more constructively do something about.

For another thing, the stakeholders we get together will typically be the same ones who have invested so much effort and emotion into getting the project this far, so there will be a natural disinclination—however unconscious—to imagine how it might go wrong. This is particularly so if there are problems around unvalidated or over-optimistic assumptions which have been brushed under the carpet.

A good solution to this is the (unpleasantly named) premortem, as described by Gary Klein in HBR. The idea is not to ask participants what might go wrong, but rather ask them to imagine a future where the project has already gone wrong… and then ask how it happened. This is much like Niels Malotaux‘s prespectives, but for a project rather than a shorter planning cycle.

Among other benefits of a premortem, Gary Klein says it “reduces the kind of damn-the-torpedoes attitude often assumed by people who are overinvested in a project”. This helps address the second issue above.

In Gary’s description stakeholders still individually list specific things that might go wrong. I’ve run premortems in a slightly different way: ask the team to provide some kind of narrative around how things went wrong, rather than just providing a list. This helps address the first problem above, as they are more likely to highlight general problem areas. This is even more effective if you can split your group into a few small teams, so each one can offer a different narrative of the disaster.

Premortems can also have an unexpected positive side effect. Imagining disastrous futures can be very entertaining, because it’s done from a safe distance. And that’s not something you often hear about traditional risk workshops.

Photo by Hermann Kaser

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