Do you find yourself working overtime, trying to deal with unexpected disruptions? Some negative events that you thought might happen has now occurred. And it's costing you more time and energy than you thought possible. Overwhelmed? Well, let's talk about project risks and issues, the differences, and why it's so important to manage risks.
The Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) defines risk as, “An uncertain event or condition that, if it occurs, has a positive or negative effect on one or more project objectives.”
Let's examine a risk statement and underscore some key attributes of risks. Here's a risk statement:
Because the project team failed to review the requirements with the users, the project team may not meet the user's needs, resulting in unsatisfied users.
Notice the risk: project team may not meet the user's needs. Think of risk as events or conditions that might happen in the future.
So, how does an issue differ from a risk? Where a risk might happen, an issue has happened. When a threat occurs, it becomes an issue or problem. By the way, when an opportunity occurs, it becomes a benefit.
Are we splitting hairs? The distinction between risks and issues matters for a few reasons.
Risk vs. Issue Debate
Some project managers and risk managers are not convinced that the differentiation between risk and issue adds any value. Even though the risk has occurred (i.e. it is now an issue in terms of the differentiation) there is still uncertainty regarding the impact and the objectives that will be impacted.
While we are on this topic, let's clarify two other terms—assumptions and constraints.
Have you ever conducted a project brainstorming session and found yourself drowning in a cloud of ideas? Not a bad thing, but how can we make sense of the ideas? Well, let's see how to create a project affinity map to sort your ideas. As a bonus, we'll also look at Dot Voting, a simple and quick way to prioritize your ideas.
An affinity map is a tool that can be used to organize ideas into groups based on their natural relationships. The ideas commonly come from a brainstorming session. So, how do project managers actually use this tool?
For instance, a project manager may ask a project team to identify reasons why a project is behind schedule. Imagine that the team identifies fifteen reasons. Next, the project manager asks the team to sort the ideas into groups. The team discovers that the reasons fall into the following groups: processes, people, product, and technology. This is a great way to create a Cause and Effect Diagram.
There are countless ways to use a project affinity map after brainstorming. Here are some examples. Identify and sort:
So, what steps do we take to create an affinity diagram? Let's walk through the process.
When you complete the exercise, the team should have a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of the issues. Sometimes the team may need additional help to identify the most significant items. Let’s look at another simple tool to prioritize the items.
Cling On Sheets
Have you ever used Cling On Sheets? They work like a whiteboard, but the nice thing is that you can put them anywhere on a dry wall and then move them as needed. After my brainstorming sessions, I take them back to my desk so I can complete my documentation and minutes.
The Affinity Map and Dot Voting provide a powerful one-two punch. You and your team will be able to sort and prioritize the ideas in a quick and organized manner. Give it a try!
Someone decided that it was a good idea to bring project management into your organization. Perhaps it was your CEO or operations manager or IT Director. But for some reason, it never took off. Project management has not been supported by your culture. Let's look at how to get things in flight with a project steering committee.
Start with an evaluation. Here are some questions to aid you in discovering the deeper issues. Interview your stakeholders to get their feedback.
Sometimes, the person responsible for project management (e.g., PMO Director or Project Services Manager) fails to involve stakeholders in evaluating project management. This person makes changes in project management with little to no input from the people being impacted. A better approach is to get regular feedback through a Project Steering Committee.
The purpose of the committee is to improve process and results. The Steering Committee determines the required changes, how much change is needed, and how fast changes need to occur.
It is best if an influential senior member of your organization sponsors the committee. The sponsor helps to establish the vision and ensures the commitment of resources. But this person doesn’t have to manage the committee.
The Steering Committee may be managed by the person responsible for project management, a person with the proper credentials and experience. The team should include representatives from different areas such as IT, project management, and business operations. Ideally, team members have had project management training and have project experience.
An optimal team size is six to eight people. Team members should serve no longer than a year. You may wish to implement a staggered rotation where you add a couple of new team members and drop a couple of team members periodically.
The Steering Committee may meet as often as desired—for example, monthly, quarterly, or twice per year.
How should the team approach the evaluation and improvement? Determine the problems and define a plan for improvement.
Try executing the changes for one of your projects to test the improvements.
Once the team has executed and tested the improvement plan, the team should report their findings to the Steering Committee. The team should recommend one of the following:
Implementing project management in an organization is not an easy task. Why? Because people are resistant to change, particularly when individuals do not understand the reason for the changes. Be patient. Listen carefully. Evolve at a healthy pace, not too fast and not too slow. Your Steering Committee can provide the feedback necessary to guide your pace and maturation.
A common denominator in challenged projects is poor communication. What are the results? Stakeholders make bad assumptions. Team members don't trust one another. Work has to be redone. Let’s look at ways to improve our communication by overcoming five bad communication habits.
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” —George Bernard Shaw
Busy Billy reviews the project charter to his team and other stakeholders in the kick-off meeting. Then he moves on to other project management tasks and never mentions it again.
How to improve: Things pop up in projects and people want to know if it's in scope. At moments like these, project managers should review the charter with the project team to ensure that the team is aligned with the original intent of the project.
Some project managers email the project documents to all stakeholders including the project schedule, budget, process improvement plans, weekly status reports, project risks, and stakeholder analysis, to name a few. What do you think the stakeholders do? Yes, most ignore the email and miss critical information.
How to improve: Tailor your communication to the needs of your stakeholders. When analyzing your stakeholders—particularly your high-power/high-interest stakeholders, ask about their communication preferences. What information would they like to receive? How would they like to receive it?
We all develop habits, some good and some bad. Are you one of those people who largely communicates in only one or two ways such as email and phone.
How to improve: Use a wider variety of communication channels including but not limited to:
Also, have more face-to-face communication when possible. This allows you to improve communication. How? Body language and facial expressions can greatly enhance the understanding between you and your stakeholders.
Jovial Julie thinks people should understand things through osmosis. She jokes, “Why should I have to be the one to carry the communication burden? We have professionals on my teams. I’ve got more important project management responsibilities to take care of.” Really?
How to improve: Be intentional about your communication. Develop and execute your communication plan. Periodically, review and update the plan. Ask for feedback from your stakeholders on how you can improve your communication.
How often have you attended a project meeting and left mumbling—what’s was that all about? Many meetings are a complete waste of time. Why? Little thought in the planning.
How to improve: First, Develop and distribute your meeting agendas prior to your meetings. Ask the meeting participants if they have agenda items they would like to include. Attach materials that participants should read and bring to the meeting.
Second, invite subject matter experts who can communicate the needed information and help the team analyze things.
Third, determine how you will facilitate the discussion points. Are there items in which you wish to brainstorm? Should you present a prototype? Will you illustrate with an example?
Lastly, determine how decisions will be made. Will the project sponsor make the final decision? Does the project team have the authority to make the decision? Perhaps, you—the project manager—plans to get the team’s input and make the decision.
The Purpose Driven Project Manager. Got soft skills? Discover how to improve your communication, develop trust within your teams, enhance your decision making, and run productive meetings in my book—The Purpose Driven Project Manager.
In my project management workshops, I ask this question, "What are the top causes of project failure?" Nine times out of ten, I hear the answer—poor communication. Hence, let's look at how to improve your project communication.
There are many ways in which project managers communicate — coaching, summarizing action items, influencing a stakeholder, educating team members, listening, facilitating decisions, creating a contract with a third party, escalating an issue, and meeting with a project sponsor, to name a few.
What happens when poor communication exists? Stakeholders get the wrong information. Others get the right information but at the wrong time. Consequently, individuals misunderstand and make bad assumptions.
"Take advantage of every opportunity to practice your communication skills so that when important occasions arise, you will have the gift, the style, the sharpness, the clarity, and the emotions to affect other people." -Jim Rohn
Here's the bottom line -- poor communication drives projects into an abysmal valley. Your reputation is marred. The cost of your project spirals out of control. Heck, your team may even abandon ship.
The Purpose Drive Project Manager
Looking for ways to improve your interpersonal skills? Kick it up a notch with my book—The Purpose Driven Project Manager. Discover how to use your interpersonal skills to build high-performing, unified project teams.
If you want to improve your communication, consider these powerful attributes of great communicators:
None of us are perfect communicators. We are blind to our bad habits. For years, I had a habit of looking up and away from the person to whom I was speaking. Why? I was thinking about how to solve the problem we were discussing. I was unaware of how this behavior was annoying others.
We don't know what we don't know. So, how can we discover our communication issues?
Ask a trusted mentor or friend to provide feedback on the communication strengths and weaknesses. What do you need to work on? Your writing skills. Your public speaking skills. Listening.
Some Project Management Offices (PMOs) never get off the ground. I've seen others that are started and a year or so later die a slow painful death. So, how can you build a PMO you can be proud of, one that thrives?
No one intends to build an impotent PMO, but it happens. The PMO lacks power and effectiveness. Therefore, people see the PMO as a hindrance, not an enabler.
Let's look at five ways we can improve vitality and provide value to our organization.
"There is only one way to avoid criticism: do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing." –Aristotle
1. PMO Sponsorship. Without a strong, influential sponsor, the PMO is doomed. Don’t have a sponsor? Then don’t create a PMO. Because you will be fighting an uphill battle, one that you will likely lose.
2. Clarity. Define specific, measurable goals. How will you measure the success of the PMO? What are the Key Performance Indicators?
The PMO leader should also be clear about the type of PMO being implemented. The Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) describes three types of PMOs:
Since clarity is essential to success, you must continuously cast the vision of where you are going, how you get there, and why you are going there.
3. Alignment. Define a process to ensure projects align with the organization’s mission and goals. What criteria will be used to select projects?
For example, the project selection criterion might include:
Kill non-value added projects. Transfer resources to value-added projects. Certainly, resource management across the project portfolio is a critical success factor.
Some organizations also use a gate review process. At certain stages of each project, the project is reviewed to ensure continuous alignment.
4. Execution. Teach project managers to use a scalable project management framework or methodology. Provide templates to aid project managers in their execution. Another tip, offer to mentor and support project managers during the execution of their projects.
5. Continuous Improvement. Evaluate the framework, tools, techniques, templates, as well as the projects. Develop and maintain lessons learned.
Thinking about starting a PMO? I recommend that you develop a project charter with your project sponsor and key stakeholders. Define the problems you wish to overcome, goals, deliverables, assumptions, constraints, and top risks to a successful implementation. You can build a PMO that you are proud of through early collaboration with your stakeholders, persistent leadership, and staying focused on delivering value to your organization. Best wishes!
Fixed date projects occur often these days. The project sponsor picks a date and hands you the project. So, what's a project manager to do? How can we manage fixed date projects?
First of all, don’t freak out. Some things are unrealistic, but others are not. Be positive and ask for some time to do some analysis. Let your sponsor know that you will come back in a week or two with the results.
Second, seek to understand why. Why is the deadline so critical? Be careful in how you ask this. You’re not challenging the sponsor. Rather, you simply want to see things from the perspective of the sponsor. Listen carefully.
Third, start defining the scope. What are the deliverables and the priorities of each deliverable? Can some of the deliverables be implemented later?
Fourth, engage your stakeholders early. Ask them to help you with the analysis. Seek their expertise.
So, what do you share with your sponsor when your analysis is complete? Think of the situation like a puzzle. Consequently, you may offer different options.
So, what do you say to a project sponsor when you've completed the analysis and you know that the deadline is unrealistic? Tell them the truth. Explain the process you went through, who was involved, the constraints, and the results.
When challenged with a fixed date project, think of it as an opportunity. Often times, you can deliver the project on time with the right approach. Here are some things to consider:
Keep in mind - good risk management often shortens the project. Risks are eliminated or decreased. However, there are always residual risks that should be recognized in your contingency reserve. For example, you may specify that the project requires an additional six weeks to accommodate risks on the project.
Your approach to a fixed date project will determine your success. The project manager must have the right attitude, ensure appropriate commitments by the sponsor and the team, and select the right processes, tools, and techniques.
You've heard the war stories of companies that tried to implement commercial software solutions or build new systems. Maybe you've even participated in one or two? Many of these endeavors took longer and cost more than expected. Others were outright failures, adversely impacting the company's bottom line. Let's look at 3 reasons that IT software projects may be challenged or fail.
The Standish Group conducts an annual survey to see why some IT software projects are successful and others fail. Year in and year out, the survey shows approximately one-third of the projects are successful: come in on schedule, on budget, and delivers what was promised. Most projects miss the mark—they are completed late or over budget or lack quality, or some combination of these attributes.
But, it doesn't have to be that way. We can be successful! It starts with understanding the most common causes of software project problems.
Imagine a software project where the project team delivers the project on time and under budget. But the software does NOT meet the users' needs. Why does this happen?
Project teams have their pants on fire! Everyone wants the software yesterday.
So, how do most project teams respond? They skip the critical step of collaborating with the users. These teams make assumptions about the user needs without even asking.
Oh, you wanted to have data prefill? Didn't know that.
Want your customers to be able to access their policy information online? Why didn't you say so?
Users assume that the project teams already know their needs. That's not always the case. In fact, often, the teams don't know.
More times than not, users see the software for the first time during training, not earlier in the project when requirements are being elicited or when the software is being designed and configured. Not even when the testing is being performed. The avenues for user input is limited, resulting in less-than-stellar software.
"The hardest single part of building a software system is deciding precisely what to build. No other part of the conceptual work is as difficult as establishing the detailed technical requirements, including all the interfaces to people, to machines, and to other software systems. No other part of the work so cripples the resulting system if done wrong. No other part is more difficult to rectify later." —Frederick Brooks
No surprise. If the users are not engaged, the requirements—the users' needs—will not be understood. What happens in these projects whether taking a traditional or agile approach? The missed requirements are discovered later. And, the rework starts, resulting in adverse impacts to the project schedule and budget, as well as the team's morale.
Project teams complain that users don't know what they want and constantly change their minds. That may be true—sometimes. But, what would you expect when the users are not asked for their input earlier in the projects? Furthermore, we live in ever-changing industries that requires that we be able to handle changes.
I know that you're smarter than the average Joe. You know that doing the same thing and expecting different results is insane. Let's take a powerful and decidedly different approach.
Some project managers make timely responses to risks, resulting in positive progress toward their project goals. Others act haphazardly, resulting in undesirable consequences. Let's look at some common risk response mistakes and how to overcome them.
So, what do I mean by risk response mistake? A mistake is an action that is misguided or wrong.
"If you treat risk management as a part-time job, you might soon find yourself looking for one." —Deloitte
Joe Cunningham once managed a project to implement a commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) software solution for a bank. He and the team had identified the project risks, but they had failed to analyze the common causes of the most significant risks. Consequently, the team was responding to risks but missing the high-leverage responses.
Perhaps you are making mistakes like this one. But, you don't have to.
I've created a list of ten risk response mistakes. I'm sure that you aren't guilty of all. Read through them, thinking about one of your projects. Make notes where you might improve.
Consider using this list as a checklist for one of your current projects. Keep your risk management as simple as possible while ensuring that the responses are economical and effective. Scale your response plans as needed; do more planning for larger complex projects and less for smaller projects.
It's easy to miss project risks. And, until a project manager has identified the threats and opportunities, the risks cannot be managed properly. Projects rise and fall with the project manager's ability to properly identify and manage their most significant risks.
Project managers don't want to spend an inordinate amount of time identifying risks—rightly so.
Neither can project managers afford to miss the critical risks. Let's look at strategies to identify risks and save time when identifying project risks. You can choose and scale these strategies as needed.
1. Use a risk list. A risk list is a list of potential risks for an industry, organization, or company. Ideally, the risks are listed by categories such as schedule, budget, quality, and scope. For example, you could identify schedule risks using a schedule risk list such as:
2. Use risk categories. What can we do if we don't have a risk list? Try a prompt list, a generic list of categories used to "prompt" the identification of risks. Typical project risk categories include:
3. Identify internal and external risks. It’s obvious that we need to identify internal risks. However, project managers may fail to identify external risks. Out of sight, out of mind. For example, an organization may contract with a third party to provide products, services, and supplies. There is the temptation to forget about it.
Just because a contract exists does not mean that the project manager has washed her hands of these risks. The project manager is still responsible for overseeing the activities, making sure the contracted products and services fulfill the project’s needs and integrate properly into the project deliverables.
“The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.” —Mark Twain
4. Perform top-down and bottom-up risk identification. With a top-down approach to risk management, the project sponsor (and sometimes senior management) declares which threats and opportunities matter. The benefit is that it provides a high-level perspective. The project sponsor defines the project goals and determines the business strategies to make it happen.
However, the project sponsor will not likely understand the project planning and execution risks. A bottom-up approach provides the advantage of getting the views of the team members and key stakeholders. An excellent tool for the bottom-up risk identification is the work breakdown structure (WBS). The project manager can work with team members to discuss the lowest level WBS activities in order to identify risks.
5. Perform risk reviews periodically. Remember—risks change over time. Imagine never having your vehicles checked or never having a physical exam by a doctor. Project risk reviews should be performed regularly. In addition, reviews should be performed for the following events:
Keep in mind, we are NOT trying to identify every possible risk. We are scanning the project environment to find the most significant risks. If done properly, these strategies can help us identify the critical risks quickly. Then we can take the next step—treat the risks.
Some project managers take a different approach - it's called wait and see. It works like this: Don't invest time (i.e., waste time) identifying and treating risks. When the uncertain event or condition occurs, the project manager would fix it—translate, the project manager and affected stakeholders would put out the fires!
Responding to issues almost always require more time and cost more money than identifying and treating risks ahead of time. Being disciplined and applying an appropriate amount of time and focus on risks can reduce project expenses, promote the project schedule, reduce stress, and help a project team achieve its mission.