How to Cash In on Project Opportunities

Some project managers have a defensive mindset…they primarily focus on threats. It’s time to achieve more by thinking differently.

Opportunities abound. They are all around us.

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

Consider these day-to-day opportunities in our personal lives.

Your favorite clothing retailer is advertising a 30% discount on a new suit you been eyeing.

Starbucks is offering Pumpkin Spice Latte for a brief season. “Cinnamon, nutmeg, clove. Creamy milk and pumpkin pie spices. Your PSL is waiting for you.”

Your company is offering free flu shots for the next two weeks…I’ll take the Pumpkin Spice Latte.

What project opportunities are within your reach? What unique set of variables provide you with a chance for improving your schedule, budget, and quality? How can you convert uncertain opportunities into a realized benefits?

Fuzzy Opportunity

Many individuals have fuzzy notions about opportunities. We cannot leverage its power until we understand it. Let’s look closer with a magnifying glass.

The 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 such as scope, schedule, cost, and quality.”

Furthermore, the PMBOK defines an opportunity as “a risk that would have a positive effect on one or more project objectives.” Therefore, negative risks are considered to be threats and positive risks are opportunities.

The Family Feud

I am a member of some project management LinkedIn Groups that have had heated debates concerning whether an opportunity is a risk ad nauseam. Some people define risks as strictly a negative event or condition. I understand their perspective.

The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines risk as “the possibility that something bad or unpleasant (such as injury or a loss) will happen.”

Once a project manager says they do not consider opportunities as risks, and then many of these individuals excuse themselves from the hunt for opportunities.

Don’t fall into this trap. Define [risk] and determine how you will identify and manage both threats and opportunities. Include your definitions and processes in your risk management plan.

Helpful Tips for Identifying Opportunities

When identifying opportunities, look at changing dynamics outside of your project. Here are some examples:

  • Your software development project is behind schedule. Another project is closing and releasing a development resource that could greatly help get your project back on schedule.
  • You’ve just heard that your unengaged project sponsor plans to retire in three months while your project’s end date is ten months away. You know a great candidate to fill the sponsor role.
  • The Quality Assurance/Testing Team (QA) has an open window with little on their plate. You could ask QA to start some preliminary testing, putting your project a little ahead of schedule.

Here’s another tip. Consider engaging people outside the project to identify opportunities. These individuals can bring a fresh perspective and jolt the status quo.

Questions to Get Your Juices Flowing

When you meet with your project team, here are some questions you may wish to use:

What are three opportunities you and your project team could seize that would significantly improve your chance for success?

  1. ____________________________________________________
  2. ____________________________________________________
  3. ____________________________________________________

What are three actions you and your team could take to exploit or enhance the opportunities in the next two weeks?

  1. ____________________________________________________
  2. ____________________________________________________
  3. ____________________________________________________

When leaders ask questions like these, team members have a chance to use their creative skills to solve problems, to advance their projects, and to gain as much ground as they can on the project battlefield.

Tools for Identifying Opportunities

Here are some tools for identifying opportunities. I am partial to brainstorming. However, I like to mix it up from time to time by using other identification tools.

  1. Interviews. Select key stakeholders. Plan the interviews. Define specific questions. Document the results of the interview.
  2. Brainstorming. I will not go through the rules of brainstorming here. However, I would offer this suggestion. Plan your brainstorming questions in advance. For example: What are the most significant opportunities related to [project objective where the objective may be schedule, budget, or quality]?
  3. Checklists. See if your company has a list of the most common opportunities. If not, you may want to create such a list. After each project, conduct a post-review where you capture the most significant opportunities. This list may be used for subsequent projects. Warning – checklist are great, but no checklist contains all the opportunities.
  4. Cause and Effect Diagram. Cause and effect diagrams are powerful. Project managers can use this simple method to help identify causes of opportunities. If we enhance the cause, we can increase the probability and/or impact of the opportunities.
  5. Affinity Diagram. The affinity diagram is a fun, creative, and beneficial exercise. Participants are asked to brainstorm opportunities. Ask participants to write each opportunity on a sticky note. Then participants sort the opportunities into groups or categories. Each group is given a title.

Keep in mind – identifying opportunities is an iterative process. Why? New opportunities may surface at any point in the project life cycle. Determine how often you will invest time in identifying opportunities.

Where Will You Capture Opportunities?

If you define opportunities as risks, then you will capture the opportunities in your risk register. If not, then consider creating an opportunity register. Either way, it is critical to have a repository. Otherwise, you will likely lose sight of the potential upside events and conditions.

Evaluating Opportunities

Let’s assume you have a list of twenty opportunities. You and your team will not likely be able to seize all the opportunities. How do you know which ones are most significant?

You will need some method of prioritization. Here are the two primary methods:

  • Qualitative analysis: Rate each opportunity in terms of probability and impact on a scale such as 1 to 5, 5 being the most likely or greatest impact. Multiply probability times impact resulting in an opportunity score.
  • Quantitative analysis: Calculate the potential benefit by multiplying the probability times the estimated value. For example, let’s assume you think the opportunity is 40% likely to occur and there is a benefit of $20,000 to the project. 40% x $20,000 = $8,000 benefit exposure.

If you have a small project, consider using a simple technique such as Dot Voting.

Responding to Opportunities

Now the question is how will we respond to the most significant opportunities. The strategies for opportunities include:

  • Exploit. Ensure that opportunity is realized (e.g., purchase a higher quantity of materials in order to get additional price discount).
  • Accept. Acknowledge the potential opportunity but take no action unless the it occurs.
  • Enhance. Increase the probability or impact of an opportunity (e.g., add more resources to the task).
  • Share. Assign all or part of the opportunity to a third party (e.g., team agreement between internal and external parties).

Monitoring Opportunities

Of course, new opportunities will surface over the life of your project. Periodically review the opportunities. Has the probability and impact changed? Is it time to exploit opportunities? Are there new opportunities?

Final Thoughts

Every project has forces that work against you and forces that work for you. Project managers who only focus on threats miss a golden opportunity (pun intended). The wind is blowing in your direction. Raise your sails and let opportunities propel you to realized benefits and project success.

Question: What other tips do you have for helping project managers identify and manage opportunities?