Carl Pritchard, PMP, PMI-RMP
It's not the scary risks we should be scared of . . .
Risk. It's a four-letter word. It's a four-letter word that strikes fear into the hearts of those around us. It's a four-letter word that strikes fear into the hearts of those around us in many cases because they don't really understand what they should be afraid of. As we work through the season of ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties and things that go bump in the night (as the traditional Scottish prayer warns us), we tend to think of risk in one of two categories. It's either free-floating anxiety or something so massive, dark and evil (think of the Death Star in Star Wars) that we can't possibly overcome it. We should, instead, be more leery of those ordinary visitors to our project doorstep . . . forever saying "Trick or Treat."
Very few projects die in the heat of a blistering fire. They don't suffer a dramatic and horrible death. Instead, it's a slow death in increments. It's a death of a thousand paper cuts. And even then, it's not unexpected, out-of-the-corner kind of paper cuts. It's paper cuts that we have incurred a hundred times and will incur a hundred times more in a hundred other projects.
The ghoulies and ghosties we should be worrying about are the familiar ones we know are coming and know will come again. Let me suggest five of them for you and five specific game plans for trying to pull the mask from these Halloween (and all-season) visitors.
- The Priority Changer -- He normally comes dressed in a charcoal suit and looks an awful lot like your boss or supervisor. He speaks in tones that make his demands seem reasonable, even though his bloodless soul leaves devastation in its wake. As he shifts your goals and objectives further and further toward the bowels of the organizational hierarchy, you find yourself unable to make progress, and in many cases, you find the progress that was already made forgotten.
The priority changer can be sent back to his/her lair with the swipe of a pen and a signature. While drawing power from the ability to shift priority at a whim, the priority changer seems stifled when exposed with a request for a signature. A word of warning, however: the signature, like a clove of garlic for a vampire, is something the priority changer will strive to avoid at all costs. Be prepared for a challenge.
- The Buried -- Costumed under a pile of paper, she would love to get back to her assigned tasks on your project, but can only do so after the costume is removed. And for some reason, she actually seems to thrive on wearing the costume. While claiming to despise the administrative burden of the costume, she actually adds more paper to it whenever given the opportunity.
The buried can become productive in either of two ways. First, consider making your project tasks part of her administrative burden, so that she's handling the work she seems to love the most. Second, if her tasks can't be channeled that way, strive to find the sources and cut off the paper supply. If other managers understand that they're giving her a shield to avoid your work, they can be your allies by channeling their admin in the other direction. Beware, however, that some managers upon learning her proclivities will actually help her build a bigger costume!
- The Miracle Worker -- Bathed in an almost incandescent aura, this team member has a gift for appearing to offer a dozen solutions to a problem, all of which might actually work. He/she walks into a meeting or briefing and proposes new approaches, new ideas and new thinking that had never been considered before. The glow from her brilliance can be so blinding that no one realizes that she never does work, and all of her suggestions actually add to cost and schedule. The bright light has the effect of drawing senior management like moths to a flame, potentially creating projects that will never end.
The glow from her gifted insight can be dimmed slightly by asking her to lead a sub-team to create an implementation plan for any of her suggestions. Alternately asking her (solo) for an action plan to get started can serve the same effect.
- The New Requirement -- Extremely hard to describe, but essential in the eyes of everyone who sees the costume. As soon as they see it, they know that have to have one, but they had never even considered it before. This is perhaps the most challenging of the spooky visitors, in that it never looks quite the same from two perspectives and it always looks good from virtually any angle.
While among the scariest of the visitors, this is one of the easiest to unmask. Simply attach a price tag, schedule and resource load to the costume and it will evanesce, fading like the mist of a sunny day on the moors.
- The Marketer's Promise -- Looks extremely easy to wear but when you try it on, it simply doesn't fit. This costume is interesting, in that every organization has them, but when it comes time for the big event, it's left on the shelf. Unfortunately, it attracts frustration from customers who wanted you to wear it, and from team members who feel bad that they can't make it fit.
Getting rid of this costume can only be done proactively, but the approach is simple. If we go along on the initial "trick or treat" rounds with our marketers, the costume is never an issue. It's never created, let alone generating the interest and desires of our customers.
It's amazing how these common "risk costumes" appear with the regularity of pumpkins in the fall. And it's still more amazing that we allow them to return year after year after year after year. It doesn't take a lot to unmask these traditional hobgoblins of our projects. But if we allow them to flourish, we indeed should be frightened of these "ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties and things that go bump in the night."