Looking for Risk and Finding Certainty

Experience suggests risk management happens after we have already encountered numerous and severe risks.  We can see engineers bringing “risks” to the project manager when we are already witnessing the symptoms and the impact to the project is inevitable.

To be relevant, risk management has to occur when there is time to plan actions that allow the project to avoid the negative impacts.  Many engineers are able to identify the biggest risk in their current project and they will most likely tell a story about a problem they are currently trying to solve.  Instead of reporting on possible things that can go wrong, they focus on the present problems such as a failed test or an unexpected behavior in a new technology.   They will tell you a story about a sad certainty.  These items have already affected the project’s scope, time, and cost.   Now, they are just trying to limit the damage. This is not risk management and shows just how effective (or ineffective) the project risk management early efforts were.

Post hoc counteractions are normally expensive.   Even if the consequences cannot be avoided, it’s far simpler for a reaction plan to be constructed without the pressure of “having” to act due to a time crunch.  Project team members understand this anticipatory preparation.  However, most engineers abhor uncertainty.  They deal in a world of black and white, ones and zeros.   There is no “might happen” in their world.    You have to coax them into the brave new world of creative “what-if” scenario building.

In order to do this, project managers must be prepared.  They need to understand the risk well enough to construct a virtual world around the team members.  They must be able to fill in the unknowns with plausible facts that allow the team members to focus on only the effects of the risk event, and not get bogged down by “it depends” and “we don’t knows”.

What tricks do you use to get engineers to be creative during risk response planning?

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