Project Practitioners > The Project Manager and the Glass (Risk Management, Part 3)

The Project Manager and the Glass (Risk Management, Part 3)

By Sinikka Waugh

If an optimist sees the glass as half-full, and a pessimist sees the glass as half-empty, I like to think of myself as a “realist” – someone who knows that, sooner or later, someone is going to have to clean it up. 

Maybe that means that during the morning scramble, I’ll have to take time to scrub out the dried-on milk rings from my 5-year old’s glass of milk the night before.  Maybe that means I’ll have to have everyone “freeze” where they are, while I get out a soapy rag and a wet/dry vacuum to clean up the now-broken glass of apple juice that my 3-year old has inadvertently knocked onto the floor while telling a very animated story.  Maybe that means my husband will just have to set the clean, dry glass back into the cupboard after the dishwasher has been run, when the hustle and bustle of the day is over.  Eventually, the glass that was on the table will have to get put away. 

Risk mitigation, especially in our kitchen, is about thinking through the things that could make “Operation Clean Up the Glass” go as smoothly as possible.  The successful operation is the one in which the person who uses the glass is also the one who empties it, sloshes it out with a smidge of water if needed, and loads it into the dishwasher which, in turn, gets run on the oh-so-frequent basis known to families with young kids across the land, and then unloaded by my tireless dishwasher-emptying husband.

So…what could make this process go less smoothly than goal state?  Any number of things, really, but some are distinctly more likely and more impactful than others…

Risk 1. If the 5-year old forgets to move her glass from the table to the sink to the dishwasher, then someone else will have to do so.

ProbabilityLow.  She’s pretty responsible for a 5-year old and remembers to clear her place about four times out of five.

ImpactMedium.  The “grownups” can just grab the glass during one of the dozen trips we make from table to sink anyway.

Risk 2If the 5-year old forgets to rinse her glass before loading it in the dishwasher, then it may not come clean enough to put away.

ProbabilityHigh.  Reaching the faucet handles is still pretty tough for her, so she usually just plunks the glass right into the dishwasher

ImpactLow.  With a fairly new, daily-run dishwasher, most glasses come clean.  Only chocolate syrup at the bottom of the glass sometimes gets stuck, in which case we just run the glass through a second time.

Risk 3If the 3-year old drops her glass between the table and the sink, then there could be a mess to clean up off the floor.

ProbabilityMedium.  When she carries the glass with both hands, she does pretty well unless she gets distracted.

ImpactMedium.  She’s pretty small, and the glasses don’t have far to fall, so they don't usually break.

Risk 4If the 3-year old knocks her glass off the table while gesticulating wildly to reinforce her point, then there could be a big mess to clean up off the floor and walls and various other surfaces.

ProbabilityHigh.  Unless we actively prevent it, this will happen.  You can count on it.

ImpactHigh.  Have you ever seen the square footage that can be covered with a fine, sticky mist by a mere four ounces of apple juice if it’s hit at just the right angle?

Risk 5If I run out of time to finish my beverage at supper before whisking the kids off to their baths, and so my glass sits on the table steadily warming to room temperature (thereby decreasing the likelihood of my drinking it), and there it continues to sit until I realize that the dishwasher is already mid-cycle and my glass is still half-full on the table, then that glass isn’t going to get clean today.

ProbabilityMedium.  In the delightful chaos that is our evening routine, I get to stay at the table long enough to eat a hot meal or finish my beverage about half of the time.

ImpactLow.  I almost always have water with supper anyway, and in the grand scheme of things, what’s one more glass to load tomorrow?

Effective risk management is about prioritizing the things that could prevent success, planning appropriately, and taking action.  So, if I understand the risk, how likely it is to occur, and if it does occur what its impact will be, then I can prioritize appropriately, and focus my attention where it counts most.  In the examples above, we pay the most attention to Risk 4 and Risk 3.  Next comes Risk 1.  Risk 2 has so little impact on the “operation” that it’s hardly worth doing more than acknowledging.  And Risk 5 is even lower priority than that!

So once risks have been prioritized, then what?  

In project management-speak, there are usually a handful of options for how we approach risk.

  • Avoid…essentially eliminate the risk.  Take an alternate route; use a different tool; rely on a different person than the one who is likely to be stretched too thin; schedule the code migration during off-hours.
  • Accept…create a contingency plan.  Acknowledge that the risk is could be realized, but determine how the team will deal with it when it happens.
  • Mitigate…reduce the probability or impact.  Take an active approach to changing some factor of the risk so that it becomes either less likely, or less harmful to the overall success of the project.
  • Transfer…share the risk with an external source.  Usually through insurance or contract structures, find someone else to help own some of the risk.
  • Ignore…pretend the risk doesn’t exist.  This last one isn’t officially sanctioned by the PMI, but the reality is, often times people, teams, and organizations just avoid talking about the “elephant in the room” and then feign surprise when it comes true.  To the extent that a risk is entirely outside of your control and that fear of that risk is paralyzing you or preventing you from moving forward, then a little dose of “ignoring the risk” can get an individual or a team un-stuck…but I don’t recommend it as a preferred strategy, unless the impact is something you can live with.

In our case, our risk response strategies look something like this…

  • Risk 4 - Avoid:  After every sip the 3-year old takes, I move the glass away from the edge of her table, on the far side of her plate, out of harm’s way.
  • Risk 3 - Mitigate:  We only let her carry empty glasses, so there’s no liquid to clean up, and we remind her as she’s walking to keep holding on with both hands.
  • Risk 2 - Accept:  As she gets a little taller, we may alter our strategy on this, but for now, we have chocolate milk rarely enough that we can live with this risk.
  • Risk 1 - Transfer:  We have a “May I please be excused?” policy at the end of our meals, and we grown-ups try to respond to the kids with “Yes, and will you please remember to clear your place?”  If we forget to remind them, then we accept ownership in the fact that we’ll likely wind up clearing the glass ourselves.
  • Risk 5 - Ignore:  Time with my kids takes precedence over finishing a glass of water, and I pretend not to notice the fact that three times a week, I let a glass sit in the sink overnight.  (Don’t tell my Mom!)

Now, can I live with “once-and-done” risk prioritization and response planning?  Absolutely not!  The kids won’t be 5 and 3 forever!  The younger one will likely always be pretty animated with her stories, but she’ll eventually get more careful (I hope).   The older one will likely go through a non-compliant stage where we’ll need something more pointed than a gentle reminder.  As the years wear on, the dishwasher may not do such a great job.  At some point, both kids will be able to reach the sink by themselves.  Eventually, we might even change our definition of success, and remove the parents from the loading and unloading the dishwasher equation altogether!  The point is, we need to review and prioritize our risks often enough to ensure that we’re focused on the right things, and we’re taking active steps to keep things running smoothly towards the end goal.

Read more from Sinikka's 4-part series:
Part 1: Crystal Ball, Anyone?
Part 2: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
Part 3: The Project Manager and the Glass
Part 4: Told Ya So

Related Links
Organizations looking to formalize risk management may want to start with a high-level risk management plan and a detailed process for becoming risk aware. A risk strategy selection matrix can help the team choose from several different risk responses.

Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.

Very nice explanation

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