Companies that have started their journey to mature risk management processes may well have robust processes in place for identifying project-related risk and ensuring these are tracked and managed adequately. That’s expected: risk management typically starts out by focusing on the risks inherent in the project tasks and deliverables.
But there is another type of risk that your teams may have overlooked: the risk that they themselves bring to the project.
Human beings bring their own prejudices, biases, assumptions and values to the project. Many of these are what you hired the staff for. You want switched-on, professional people working on your change initiatives. But even with the best team in the world, their unconscious ways of working can introduce risk to your initiatives.
Risk management processes will help to call these out and when you can identify them you can act appropriately to avoid them having any negative impact on your team (and, where possible, capitalizing on the positive). First, though, you have to know what you are looking for.
Here are 3 ways that your team members could be inadvertently adding more risk to your projects and programs.
1. Risk to Project Scheduling
Great schedules rely on great estimates. As soon as your estimates start to go a bit wonky, your schedule stops being a reflection of what you can realistically achieve and starts being a made-up timeline of what will never get delivered.
Great estimates need time. Unfortunately, many businesses don’t allow enough time for project initiation and the early steps of the project management life cycle where estimating is completed. As a result, estimates aren’t as good as they could be. Some common issues with poor estimating include:
- Teams being asked to estimate in a rush
- Teams not having access to historical data to see how long similar tasks took in the past
- Teams not having the software or tools to allow them to do simulations or calculations for their estimates and instead relying on gut feel and professional judgment.
- Teams not having detailed enough information about the work they are trying to estimate
- Teams being naturally too optimistic about what can be achieved in the time frames of the project (optimism bias, which could, for some, also be pessimism bias – overly long estimates are also a problem for an accurate schedule).
All of these can easily be addressed and will significantly reduce the risk to your project schedule. Think about the estimating processes and ensure they are sufficiently robust to counteract the inherent risk of having a single, over-stretched resource doing the estimating.
Example: Have team members review each other’s estimates. Accept Order of Magnitude estimates at early phases and allow these to be revised and fine-tuned as the project progresses. Process estimates as a range instead of as a fixed point, so there is some flexibility built in from the beginning.
2. Risk to Project Communications
While humans are naturally social creatures, they aren’t always particularly good at communicating. You have probably been in a meeting where someone delivered an impressive-sounding monologue that left the room cold as no one could really follow. Miscommunication is common, especially on teams using computer-mediated communication like instant messaging or online project management collaboration tools. These tools can add immense value but can also add communication risk into a project that should be managed carefully.
Potential risks with communication include:
- Team members working on the wrong tasks
- Team members working in the wrong way
- Team members working on work that has already been completed by someone else (this happens surprisingly often!)
- Team members not working on something that is critical or otherwise carrying out their work in a fashion that isn’t timely for the project’s requirements.
It’s not simply about getting work completed. Project leaders risk making the wrong decision or a delayed decision if they do not have access to the right information. Poor communication is often the source of this: project managers may believe they have provided all the facts, but the communication was done in a way that the sponsor or senior manager hasn’t been able to interpret it correctly.
Example: Communication is a cultural value and should be explicit in the way your projects are run. Offer communications training to teams and be particularly alert to the potential risk in a multi-national environment where team members do not all have the same mother tongue.
3. Risk to Project Staffing
Project resource allocation is often more art than science. Project managers would love to have access to the best resources for the job but normally don’t have the luxury of being able to choose who will work on their projects. This is due to a number of factors, not least the availability of those crucial subject matter experts and the priority of other projects.
However, project managers do need to adequately manage resource risks that arise from the makeup of the team and how work is allocated to individuals.
Resource risks can include:
- Delegating work to inappropriate members of the team because the project manager does not know them well enough to allocate them appropriate tasks
- Failing to secure the best resources for the project – this can also add scheduling risk as less experienced resources take longer to complete a task
- Failing to deal with conflict to the point that this causes problems for the morale and productivity of the team
These issues are normally considered part of the leadership function of a project manager but they are still very real risks and could be effectively managed through the risk management processes.
Example: Ensure project managers are aware of conflict resolution techniques and help them develop their leadership style. Be conscious of resource allocation processes and seek to minimize the inherent risk in this activity.
You can’t get your strategic and tactical projects done without people, but it pays to be aware of the risks that people bring to your project. These are often not spoken about but are sometimes more prevalent than the risks the project manager records in the risk log.
Simple steps, a transparent way of working and good communication will help to identify and resolve many of these potential problems before they become issues for your team’s success.