Is Project Management a Risky Business?

If being a project manager is your career goal, reflect a bit on Tom Cruise’s experiences in the movie “Risky Business”—not the wild and crazy partying—but his failure to think through the consequences of his actions and the problems that caused him. Managing a project can be risky because there are many variables over which you have no control and yet you must successfully deliver product on time and within budget.

The good news is that you can accommodate risks—notice I did not say eliminate–through forethought, early identification, and a good game plan. Back in April 2009, I talked about including risks when creating a project schedule, so now I want to talk about other aspects of risk management beyond scheduling.

The PMBOK views risk management as sufficiently important to receive an entire chapter that covers inputs, tools and techniques, and outputs for identifying, qualitative and quantitative analysis, responses, monitoring and control. You can read their words of wisdom and suggestions in Chapter 11.

What Can Go Wrong?
CIO magazine did an informal survey entitled, “Project Management What Could Go Wrong” in August 2007. Here are some interesting and typical comments from project managers:

  1. Setting the "go live" date before the requirements are understood.
  2. Assuming resources will be available when they are needed.
  3. Assuming you can get more done by putting the same person across multiple projects (somewhat sarcastic, but I have seen this done).
  4. Building what the user asks for rather than finding out and solving the real business problem behind the request.
  5. Creating the overall plan at the beginning of the project…and then assuming that is the plan you will follow.
  6. Assuming adding people will immediately increase the velocity of the team.
  7. I’ve found that the biggest risk is that the project is simply not actively managed day after day.
  8. One of the first lessons I learned is to make sure you aren’t passively letting end users or business requestors solely determine requirements. Make sure you have subject matter experts from affected areas on the team to address potential impacts to other areas.
  9. If there are critical data, resources that must be acquired in the beginning, or at certain phases of the project, make sure you get them. Delays in critical resources delay the whole project.

Managing Risks
The risks identified by these program managers are familiar to anyone who has managed a project. I especially liked comment #7, that not managing the project every single day creates a big risk. One technique I have found that helps me manage details that could risk a project’s success, is what I call “the Thursday night activity”. Before you go home on Thursday, look at the upcoming week’s tasks; make a list of dependent tasks, critical tasks and required/assigned resources.  Also note slipping tasks and slipping resources.  Then, first thing Friday morning check the status of each dependent task and each resource to make sure they are ready and available to meet their obligations. You have all day Friday to get the next week on track.  Of course this assumes you have accurate data on tasks and resources!

Early identification is the next risk management activity I suggest. This requires that for each risk in the risk management plan and each critical project task, you develop a problem indicator. Obvious indicators are cost and schedule variance. However, you need indicators that flag problems before they show up on the monthly reports. Weekly schedules help.

To your already full schedule of tasks, add keeping in touch with clients, customers, users, and other stakeholders at least monthly. This is a quick check on their perception of how things are going not a lengthy report or long phone call.  Make a list of comments that suggest possible future problems and follow up with the team.

Do not discount your gut feel or feelings that something is hinky (Urban Dictionary: Something as yet undefinable is wrong, out of place; not quite right). Those feelings should encourage you to dig a bit deeper and see if action is required. Events that place projects at risk do not always come with a neat bow tied around them saying, “Manage me, I am a risk!”

Remember to include the people side in your risk management. All kinds of human situations—sick family members, divorce, office romances, financial problems—can lead to less productivity or poorer than expected performance. It is not gossiping or interfering when you check up on folks, if you have a caring, non-judgmental, attitude.

One word of caution – risk management comes in different levels of size, shape and detail.  Use good judgment to know how much risk identification and mitigation is enough.  Don’t spend time identifying and planning for every risk on your project – some risks aren’t as important as others.  Just use “enough” risk management as is appropriate for the type and scope of the project you are managing.

Share you risk management experience and strategies—we will all appreciate the chance to learn more.

5 Responses to “Is Project Management a Risky Business?”

  1. Project Management – Sometimes Seeing the Funny Side is Necessary « Fear No Project – A Project Management Blog Says:

    […] talked last week about the risky business of project management. Stress seems to be the mother’s milk of managers. In the middle of dealing with a new set of […]

  2. Mohammad Waheed Says:

    I think the project management is solution to a risky business. A proper project management can be end to all risky decision.

    The part that makes project management risky is, others’ understanding and appreciation about this role. Many organizations take project management lightly, and suffer the consequences in the end.

  3. Trust, but Verify – Dealing with Vendors and Subcontractors « Fear No Project – A Project Management Blog Says:

    […] Manage risks, don’t react to problems — Is Project Management a Risky Business? […]

  4. Asking for Help « Fear No Project – A Project Management Blog Says:

    […] risk management plan, they consider what could happen. (see: PMBOK: Project Risk Management and  Is Project Management a Risky Business?) The manifestation of a risk indicator should lead to detailed analysis and perhaps management […]

  5. Is your project “Risky Business”? | Fear No Project Blog - Focusing on the Management Side of Projects Says:

    […] time readers of FNP blog will remember that one of my favorite movies is “Risky Business” starring Tom Cruise.  For those that might not know the plot, it is about a teenager looking to […]


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