Project management is a key vehicle for organisations to turn strategy into action. However, despite the increasing investment in project management capability, many projects still fail to meet their objectives. In this final article in the series we explore how superficial risk management can set deadly traps for project teams, one of the ‘seven deadly sins’, initially coined by Jeffrey Pinto in his paper ‘Lies, damned lies, and project plans’: Recurring human errors that can ruin the project planning process’.
At Skarbek, we often parachute into situations where a client’s key projects are in crisis and the blame game has begun. Has there been malpractice in project management, or is it environmental factors that have driven failure – lack of resources, commitment, engagement, or sponsorship? To those project managers who readily point out that their projects were well run, but these external factors conspired against success, Pinto’s seven deadly sins provide some insights that can make the profession question whether they really got it right from the beginning.
The final sin tackled by Pinto is the superficiality of risk management. His principal observation is the idiosyncrasy of approaches employed across and within many organisations. He also points to the lack of learning that is inherent in many teams’ approaches to risk. To give a contemporary example, we would imagine there are now very few project risk registers that do not feature pandemic-related factors. The lesson has been learnt. But how many risk registers featured pandemic before the COVID crisis? How can project teams grow their ability to learn about what might happen, rather than just being reactive?
Another issue we usually find is that project risk registers are just that – registers – and the risks on them are not actively managed once identified. They sit there until they become issues, which then saps the project teams’ time, as they were not mitigated. Often the team is so busy with current issues that not getting to the mitigation plans for the risks just fuels a constant conveyor belt of issues and the risks are never tackled. In particular, high impact, low probability risks (pandemic anyone?) tend to be particularly neglected, witness the fact that a pandemic was top of the UK Government’s risk register for many years prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. There was arguably a failure to engage fully in the varied consequences of a pandemic and an inability to extract all suitable learnings from, for example, countries who had dealt with the SARS pandemic.
Finally, the treatment of risk by senior leaders often drives suppression. When risks are treated simply as something that a project team that works hard enough will overcome, the risk is not fairly shared when the senior leaders only visible behaviours are to demand success. Dealing with risk is a business leadership responsibility and leaders need to inform themselves as to the risk held in their portfolio of projects and lead accordingly by supporting the project teams and being transparent within their leadership teams.
At Skarbek, we have three very effective approaches to re-imagine the approach to risk and bring risk to life for project teams and sponsors:
- Pre-mortem: To overcome the mental block that “we’re too busy to mitigate that and it won’t happen anyway”. We advocate the pre-mortem technique – asking teams to imagine that the patient has died, i.e. the risk has turned into an issue. Then, they brainstorm the reasons why that could have happened, which can drive actions being taken now that mitigate the risk.
- McRaven Technique: Vice-Admiral William H. McRaven, who devised the strategy for the capture of Osama Bin Laden, published his analysis of the success factors of several special forces operations in his book ‘Spec Ops’. He identified that successful operations were characterised by a few common success factors including one in which the major objectives, which altered the probability of the success of the mission the most, were focused on and delivered as quickly as possible. This reduced the ‘area of vulnerability’, where the mission hangs in the balance, to a minimum. Skarbek adapted and adopted this technique from the special operations world into business projects. By working with project teams to plot this graphically over time, we can then use the pre-mortem technique for those moments when the probability of success should jump to game the de-risking of the project effectively.
- Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) RAG status setting: We often see RAG (Red-Amber-Green) project status reporting boards that have far too much green in the status assessments to accurately reflect the true status of overall project risk. The UK Government’s IPA has a system of very tightly written definitions for the RAG status and intermediate categories that makes it much harder to massage the reporting of project risk upwards.
This concludes our series drawing out the lessons from Pinto’s description of the Seven Deadly Sins of Project Management. We hope that our insights into what may be dooming your projects from the offset, and the strategies that we have found can be employed to avoid this fate, have been informative and useful in real-world situations. In case you have missed any articles in the series, we will also publish a final article consisting of the full series.