005-The First 5 questions to ask whenever you start a new project (part 5 of 5)
TSaluti! Join us for our new podcast, the Project Management Happy Hour! In our first 5 episodes, we are going to look at the first 5 questions you need to ask whenever starting a new project.
If you haven’t listened to episodes 1-4, you might want to check those out first
Question 1 helped us define success for the project, Question 2 helped us understand scope and opportunity. Question 3 helped us understand budget and value, and question 4 helped us understand the schedule and what drives it. For question 5, we look at where this can all go wrong
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Show Notes for this Episode
Now we’ve covered what it means to succeed, and the main constraints of our project.
(Scope, Budget, Schedule), let’s go down the big final thing.
To proceed, we need to accept that projects are optimistic endeavors and Project People are usually optimistic. We are making a change, making an investment in time, effort and money and we expect a positive return for that investment. All too often we are so optimistic that we don’t stop and consider that things could go horribly wrong. If you look at project success criteria, you’ll see the odds are stacked against you from the outset, so it doesn’t pay to ignore them.
Your new project has just as much a chance as any other of failing. So, from the very earliest stage, we should start looking at RISK and ask: Where can this thing go wrong?
Always remember, something can and will go wrong with every project. We will share a case
study for a project where, if we had not correctly managed risk, our failure would have
been so epic, we would have been on CNN.
Raising the Risk [8:10]
If we are in the early forming stage of a project and we are trying to “sell” it (internally or to a client), we may be hesitant to call out risks. But to call it out is exactly what we should do. You will probably find that if you raise a risk with your stakeholders, clients or partners, they will be your biggest supporters for remediating those risks. And you can actually use it as an opportunity to engage with your sponsor and build a relationship.
Keep in mind that having the courage to raise risks is your priority number one, especially if you do not have a solution for the risk yet.
Roleplay on How to Communicate Risk [10:00]
- “Hello, Ms. Sponsor, I think we might have a problem. In our kickoff meeting today, we talked about how important it is that this project happens with no user impact. However, Mr. Stakeholder here says that we aren’t exactly sure how many people use that service, or who they are – for sure. I’m concerned that if we don’t know who they are, we may not be able to ensure they aren’t impacted. So, Ms. Sponsor and Mr. Stakeholder, what are your thoughts on how we address this issue? Won’t this be a problem for us?”
- “Hello, Mr. Sponsor, the multi-million dollar, global project I’m responsible for is the first time we’ve managed a cross-business unit integration. I’m confident in our ability to deliver the responsibilities of your business unit, but we have no way to boss around the other teams we need to work with. If we run into an accountability problem with a business unit, how should we handle that?”
- “Hello, Ms. Sponsor, the last time we ordered servers for a project, our procurement process took 90 days to process the purchase request and have equipment on site. In our kickoff today, you said that for you to call this project a success, we had to have the new solution live within 80 days. Considering our timeline with procurement, how do you think we should handle this? This would really blow our timeline if it takes 90 days again just to get the kit?”
- “Hello Mr. Sponsor, Fashion Week is about 6 months out, and we haven’t finalized our material suppliers yet. We need to see and confirm what we are planning for each of the 5 pieces we plan to show. I know you’ve worked with our suppliers before, but if we don’t verify we’re getting the same quality, we risk our own work. What do you think about getting some samples in early?”.
We probably are NOT going to resolve those risks right away, and that’s totally OK – trying to do that is going to take us down the rabbit hole. At the start of a project in the kickoff meeting, you may not be prepared to go through a detailed risk identification, qualitative analysis, quantitative analysis, response planning, and all good PMBOK risk stuff right now.
When you are at this early stage, there are going to be some big scary risks that are obvious to your sponsor and key stakeholders – or you. The important thing is to identify the big ones, get the risks on the table so we can sort them out later.
Identify the Risk [15:59]
There will be instances on your projects where your sponsor will ask to implement a procedure which you know is too ambitious and risky. It is important that you as a project manager will step up to identify and raise these risks. Having such courage could save the entire organization from getting into a big mess.
The best question to ask yourself in this situation is: Where can this go wrong and how do we keep that from happening?
You need to dissect every aspect of the problem and risks that go along with the solution. The team needs to work collaboratively to come up with a strategy to mitigate risk.
What Can We Do About The Risk [19:24]
Whatever resolution you choose to fix a problem, you and your team need to get a clear view on the risk and benefits – because there were risks either way. This must be clearly stated to the executive steering committee, and empower them to make the right risk decision for the company.
The important thing is to identify and plan for risks as a project team. Be vigilant, there should be no lone-gunman working on this by themselves.
Residual Risk Acceptance [23:16]
Even with clever risk identification and planning, expect that you will still have a little left over of risks – this is what we call residual risk. This must be documented together with the remediation strategies, and benefits for each approach. Once all these are noted, they must be communicated to the sponsors and stakeholders – ideally in an honest and frank discussion.
Remember, it is not the PM’s job to accept – or reject risk. It is the PM’s job to ensure risks are
identified, understood, and communicated, so the sponsors and stakeholders can make the right business decision about how to handle them. It is up to the PM to make sure that these decisions are being made.
Keeping on Top of Risks [26:06]
Note, identifying a risk does not absolve you of it. Even if someone else “owns” that risk, it’s still your problem. Which is why it is important for you to check the risk log on a weekly basis and take actions on it.
The risk log must be prepared after the risk has been identified at the beginning of the project. It must also document the mitigating actions.
Monitor and Control [28:11]
In the case study we discussed in this episode, the sponsors decided to engage a Risk Manager to monitor and control the risks. This person was not attached to the project. Her main responsibility was to make sure everyone is being thorough as we should have been in planning our response strategies to each risk.
She also checks on the program managers at least once per week to run down the list of major risks and then measure the progress against the risk management plans. And these are all reported directly to the executive steering committee.
If anything slips on a risk, the project manager will have to answer for it.
Because we started off the project with a frank and open dialogue about risks, we were able to face them and manage them. And we didn’t make it on CNN.
Key Probing Questions
- Where can this go wrong? How can we prevent that? How else can it go wrong?
- What risk in this project concerns the PM the most?
- What risk in this project concerns the sponsors, stakeholders, and/or the team members the most?
- Are we being brutally honest about our risks – to ourselves, our team, our stakeholders – even if (or especially if) they are paying customers?
- What new risks are there?
- When is the last time we went through our risk log?
You may be in trouble if:
- You are ever in a position where you have something that looks like a project but has not identified where it can go wrong – no risk log.
- Your project team, sponsors, stakeholders don’t know the major risks, or know them but don’t really understand the potential impacts.
Principles for Success
- Risks are just as much an input into your scope, schedule and budget as your solution.
- Yellow Light Principle by Mahan Khalsa
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