talking about risks

risk talking blahOne often-used lament I hear on projects and in project management classes is, “No one here wants to deal with realistic schedules and budgets.”   Interestingly, there seems to be two perspectives on this phenomenon…

First, from the “worker bee” perspective, there is a sense that “management” always “discounts” the estimates.

Second, from the “management” perspective, there is a sense that the “worker bees” always “pad” the estimates.

Hmmm… of course, both are “right” — which leads to an escalating round of “I know that they know that I know that….”  It is no longer a case of estimating, but of game playing and/or power trips.

There are many issues to address (estimation methods, fact-based decision-making, Critical Chain, PERT, etc.), but I’d like to look at just one: communicating and perceiving risk.

Kimberly Wiefling had some interesting insights in a recent blog.  She suggests tapping into the “skeptic” side of ourselves to find the negatives, then “reversing” them.  As she points out, this “negative” thinking can unleash a torrent of ideas.  In my experience, this approach resonates especially well with the analytical people — who compose a vast majority of worker bees.  In a very real sense, this approach is much like identifying risks, then coming up with responses.  So, why is it, then, that when we look at a lot of risk plans, we see pretty timid items like: “People might get reassigned.”  Wow. Duh.

What’s going on?  Well, I think it’s been systematically beaten out of a lot of us.  I hear versions of this, “My managers don’t want to hear about risks.  They tell me to just deal with it.”  It seems that the lesson being learned is: DO NOT discuss risks and just bargain for as big a pad as one can get (negotiating is a great PM skill, but do we really want our planning decisions based predominantly on how well we negotiate?).

There is another telling indicator.  I ask students the question, “Would you rather lead a meeting discussing potential project problems before a project starts, or a meeting discussing the specific problems actually encounted after the project is late?” Younger, less experienced students clearly prefer the former.  The more experienced students move more toward the latter.

Why would experience do this?  Do we become less analytical?  I think managers are different in some ways.  They have more experience, they have a longer track record of success.  I think they have a powerful can-do approach.  Their successful history makes them quite optimistic.  They are not so much less analytic than they are more decisive and action-oriented.  Who are the heroes in your organization — the planners, or the fixers/firefighters?

(A lot of this is cultural.  My experience with Japanese and German collegues indicates a significantly different managerial approach to careful risk planning from my U.S. experience; and, there is variation from company to company and even in different departments and professions.)

I believe that a lot of us “learn” the success path as we go “up the ladder” : don’t bring up problems, pad the estimates, explain and take credit for fixing problems.

Now, one of my biases you should know about is that I hate padding.  To me, it’s lame and is a poor substitute for thinking clearly (it also doesn’t really really work and has other really bad unintended outcomes, but that’s a tale for another time).  One of the metaphors from JIT was to lower the level of water, in order to expose the rocks, in order to remove them, resulting in better flow.  To me, padding just hides bad things — a kind of reality distortion drug.  I think it has become the modus operandi to avoid real thinking and dealing with real problems.

I’m not suggesting it is going to be easy to wean ourselves off the padding drug.  Let’s start simply.  Rather than going deep into good risk management,  I’m going to suggest that some of the issue/opportunity is one of communication.  Organizations may have a history of shooting the messengers, we see this, we are not stupid, so we stop pointing out problems.  So, we can look for ways to stop (or reduce) the shooting, and we can look for ways to prevent (or lessen the chance of) being shot.

Some recommendations:
1) Stop the bargaining game as estimating

2) Ask for the real risks

3) Take a little more time than you might normally be inclined to do and listen

4) Be patient — your collegues may have trouble, at first, getting to the point

5)  Be demanding – expect good thinking  and reward those that bring up risks and appropriate responses

1)  Do the “negative” — identify lots of problems/risks

2)  Triage — quickly assess into “acceptable”, “plan contingencies”, and “do something now” categories — don’t bog on analysis paralysis

3)  Never leave a “naked” risk.  Just a list of risks, even if prioritized, is still just a list of problems.  Show how you are addressing (or, at the very minimum, how you intend to address) the risks — Show that you are a problem solver!

4)  Show how your risk planning allows you to plan aggressively — not a CYA, padded, bloat-monstor of a plan, but a plan that has a chance to be great with provisions for dealing with reality

5)  Get to the point – don’t emphasize the analysis, emphasize the actions.

Let’s be positive about our negatives and really talk about what we’re going to do!

alan tsuda


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