If forewarned is fore-armed, why is it that managing risk continues to be a significant challenge for project delivery?

Good risk management is a cornerstone of the project delivery profession. It is spoken about, taught, analysed and reported upon in all organisations that consider themselves to be mature deliver environments. Yet many projects and programs still fall well below their key delivery benchmarks (typically explained as time, cost and quality) and, more often than not, the reason is an unidentified risk manifesting itself into an issue that impacts adversely on delivery.

You would think with all the know-how on risk (including that retained within an organisation) and the effort that goes into quantifying the risks of a project that none would slip through the net, but they still do, and sometimes spectacularly.

So what are the possible reasons that risks are still not always adequately identified and understood and why are they still negatively impacting projects large and small alike?

White Line Fever

Project teams are hard-wired to deliver, and never more so than in the current delivery environment that heavily favours agile techniques whereby delivery is an on-going cycle. This emphasis upon regular outcomes drives a delivery focussed mentality within many teams. This focus can, however, have a negative impact on risk management as it is exercised within the team.

As agile continues to propagate the emphasis on continual delivery can make risk management seem like a handbrake to the speed with which teams are now working at and as such it gets put to one side in the rush to hit delivery deadlines.

Some Things Cannot be Learned at School

Within the business and IT world professional project management is a relatively new phenomenon, unlike say in the construction game whereby project management has been taught and valued all the way back to days of pharaohs building the pyramids. The newness of project management within the white-collar sector has led to the rise in the last 10–20 years of university courses and many stand-alone bodies providing varying degrees of project management qualifications. This, of course, includes risk management.

Whilst the mechanics of managing risk can seem straight forward in a textbook or course type situation the actually effective application of risk management is far more nuanced. This is for two reasons.

Firstly, good risk management requires the ability to identify potential risks. This requires imagination and imagination is often informed heavily by past experiences of what can happen in certain situations. For example, who could have imagined that one of the reasons for a lengthy and costly delay to the Sydney Tram project was because they – wait for it – found pre-existing tram tracks under the road that needed to be removed, at additional cost and time to the project?

This is a clear case of a deficit of imagination and experience during the risk assessment. If someone had been in the room to say ‘hey what do you reckon they did with all that old tram infrastructure in the 60s that could still be under the road’ then this risk may have been identified and mitigated.

The second issue is hinted at in the above. To corral all the potential risks you may need input from a wide range of people. Some of whom may be time poor or they may actually be hostile to the project. This is where stakeholder management becomes critical. If you do not have the gravitas and experience to get all the right people engaged then running through the risk management process per the textbook will not be enough.

We Just Want the Good News

We have written about this many, many times: an organisation culture whereby good news is valued by the executive over the ‘real’ news drives certain sub-optimal behaviours in an organisation that will bleed down into project delivery. Forever calling out risks and possible issues can be seen as antagonistic to an executive who just wants to hear about what is going well.

This dynamic can lead to the less experienced or robust project manager to prioritise the good news over the possible bad news and keep the risk and issues toned down or off the agenda altogether. This is a head in the sand mentality that does not promote good risk management practices.

The above is not an exhaustive list but it is a good indicator of why risks continue to blindside some projects to their detriment. Of course, identifying the risk is just the beginning and does not mean they will not manifest themselves into significant issues but at least it provides the team with the ability to have robust mitigation plans for them if they occur. And as the old adage goes forewarned is forearmed.

As project specialists, we develop fit-for-purpose project risk strategy and project assurance.  Contact us here to find out more about how we work with your teams or call 02 9098 6300.

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Quay Consulting
Quay Consulting is a professional services business specialising in the project landscape, transforming strategy into fit-for-purpose delivery. Meet our team ...