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Risks and Issues – They are not the same!

risk managementIf you talk with me long enough, you will find that I have conflicting opinions about the profession I love so much. Riddled with pretentious buzzwords and often hostage to the marketing professionals, project management is still one of the greatest competitive advantages a company has. In this post, I want to move past the creative metaphors and get down to business. I want to discuss risks and issues, because too many Project Managers use the terms interchangeably or they are completely missing a critical responsibility of their role.

In spite of diligent planning and a talented team, at some point most project managers will find themselves under the intense scrutiny of executive questioning. The difference between a project manager and a project leader is the ability to answer their questions with a sense of prescience and diligence. While they don’t expect perfection, most executives fly at 30,000 feet and don’t have time to get into the nuances of every project.  If you want your project to succeed, you must be able to explain how you manage project risks and issues.

Risk Management

Even though I have been working with technology my entire career, Thomas Friedman really opened my eyes to the rapid pace of our technology-enabled world/economy. Browse Fast Companies Most Innovative Companies List and you will see small start-ups from all parts of the world. With industry giants feeling the competitive pressure from these ‘garage-band’ firms (complete respect intended), speed to market is crucial and effecting how projects are executed.   Unfortunately, that speed comes by sacrificing the planning stage of a project.

Who is taking the time to consider the risks and what could go wrong…what could affect starting the project? What could affect the progress or quality of the project? What if? What if? While I don’t think Benjamin Franklin was addressing a local PMI chapter when he said “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” he certainly provided timeless advice when considering risks.

As the Project Leader, it is your responsibility to host a session to discuss this topic with the team. I always allocate some time during the kick-off call to discuss this. Several stakeholders will drop from regular contributions after this meeting, so it is a great opportunity to capture everyone’s initial thoughts. Some folks are uncomfortable having this conversation at the outset, but I make it light with a joke about breaking out our crystal ball or sharing Franklin’s quote. It shows thorough leadership right out of the gate. A few probing questions that could be used during this discussion…

What could go wrong?

What could delay you from completing your task? Do we have seasonal challenges ahead of us (weather, vacation, etc)? Do we rely on a vendor or outside element for our team to complete? Is anything happening in the market or politically that could affect the project? What if? What if? What if?

What impact will this have?

If this ‘What if?’ actually happens what would it do to the project? Would it delay the project? Would it cost more? Would it reduce quality? The key to this is quantifying the statement the best you can. X days delay, % increase in cost, failure rates, etc.

What can be done to mitigate the risk?

Can delaying the project increase the quality? Can partnering with a different vendor reduce costs? Can Marketing run an awareness campaign to improve adoption? What steps can be taken to get ahead of the risk and PREVENT it from occurring.

Who owns the mitigation plan?

Once you have identified the risk and a mitigation plan, you must assign a person to be responsible for executing that plan. Without an owner, the plan won’t work itself.

Issues Management

risk-issue-managementProjects are difficult initiatives haunted by unknowns, especially innovation projects. I am not naïve to think that a few conversations towards the beginning of your project will guarantee success. Never mind the unknowns, even with a solid mitigation strategy some of those identified risks will become realized problems to your project. Now is the time to kick in an action plan, to minimize the effects on your project and bring the issue to closure. Once an issue occurs, here are a few things you should be doing to bring it to closure:

  • Understand – What is it that actually happened? Who/What has been effected? Was this an identified risk and if so, what was done already to mitigate it?
  • Present & Collaborate – Get the team together (as applicable) and give a recap of the issue, to make sure everyone is on the same page. Then ask for suggestions to resolve and consider new risks from the potential resolution.
  • Decide, Communicate, & Act – Once the resolution has been agreed upon, communicate that plan to your team & the customer, then act on the plan. Again, make sure you have an owner of the task/s.
  • Update – Once the issue has been resolved, circle back with the appropriate parties to confirm the issue has been resolved and new mitigation strategies to prevent a recurrence of the issue.

The suggestions above (especially Issues Management) must be applied according to your specific circumstances. You may not have the time or need to gather the team; rather a quick decision can be made via a phone call. What is constant across both Risk and Issue Management are the needs to actually do it and also to document it!

Create a very simple risk and issue log (2 tabs on an XLS is fine), which you review during your project meetings. Risk and Issue logs should be living, breathing documents that are tracked, updated, and discussed throughout the project.

Effectively managing risks and issues is crucial to your career as a project manager.   At some point, you are going to lead a project that comes off the rails and when the executives start asking questions, you will be happy you put this into place. Being able to show the risk plan, with mitigation strategies, and how you have addressed other issues will keep you in their good graces. You don’t have to be perfect, but you must prove you did everything you could to lead the team to success.

Find out more about ESI’s Risk Management course for Project Managers.



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About Robert Kelly

Robert Kelly
Robert Kelly is a Managing Partner at KPS, a project management consultancy. Robert is also the Co-Founder of #PMChat, a global community of project managers and business leaders that discuss best practices and lessons learned via Twitter.

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