Risky business

Last time, I wrote about assumption not being bad but actually a desirable technique for overcoming analysis paralysis (http://iqi616.com/2011/01/assumption-is-the-mother-of-all-mess-ups/). This time I’m going to tackle another aspect of project management that has negative connotations that need to be revised. The R-word: Risk.
Risk always seems to be viewed as a bad thing – especially in corporate projects. At best there is the strange concept of “positive risk” i.e. the danger that something might turn out good when all expectation was that it probably wouldn’t. These days, whether in business, parenting, or walking in the park, risk is seen as something to be eliminated.
And then there’s the calculated risk. Again something that implies something dodgy took place – someone trusting to luck instead of judgement (despite the use of the word “calculated”). Why is that? Surely a calculated risk is a reasonable thing to do – as long as the calculation is sensible. Part of the problem is that people don’t like to tell other people that they’re taking any form of risk so the risk takers only admit it afterwards. The problem with that is it doesn’t change anyone’s view on risk – they just breathe a sigh of relief they didn’t have to pick up the pieces.
Let’s take a look at history. What about sailing ships and their trips across the Atlantic and around the globe? What about the moon missions? Huge risks but calculated and mitigated. Even less dramatic adventures involve a certain amount of risk that if mitigated render the risk acceptable. Take flying, the risk seems higher but so much mitigation takes place that you are very much more likely to be killed in the car taking you to the airport than the plane flying you to Paris.
So, the same to risks in projects. What is wrong with saying “we are going to take a risk, this is the payoff, and these are the potential pitfalls and these are the mitigations”? Don’t avoid discussing risks, bring them up-front and show that the risk has been properly handled.
Far from being bad or even neutral, risk can be good. I’m not a great adventurer but risks are exciting and when carefully presented a risk can capture the imagination of the team and stakeholders and help get them excited and engaged. Thinking back to my earlier post about using the word Ambition instead of Vision or Goal (http://iqi616.com/2011/01/revelations-about-project-management/) why not make the risk part of the ambition? Don’t hide from it. Lay out the risk from the outset and highlight the payoff and the mitigations.


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