Managing Risk Can Be Risky

Last week the message was “lean into risk.”  To get into a project we have to overcome fears – emotional risks.  But, managing emotional risks can be risky.

Emotional risks are fears we feel like fear of failure, embarrassment, loss of status, or more tangible impacts that may not be quantifiable but are scary.  As project managers, we know that part of our job is to make quantifiable business risks explicit and understand how they affect the work to be done on the project.  I asserted that the emotional risks are also important as those fears affect our team and stakeholders behavior on the project.  If we better understand them and can get them safely into the open, we can do things that mitigate the emotional risks and help people engage in the project.

I got a comment – I love comments – from Mike Murphy on Linked In.  Thanks, Mike! Mike described his experience in organization cultures where leaders emotionally resisted managing business risks.  Responsible project managers trying to identify and mitigate business risks can be greeted with rejection. Mike said he might hear “You are being negative” or “That can’t happen” during risk assessments.   I’ve experienced that, too.  Business decision makers, having endorsed a project, sometimes expect everyone to carry it out without doubts.  Behavior that seems to undermine that endorsement meets resistance.  Or worse.  It can be risky.  Perhaps the organization’s culture doesn’t include mature project or risk management processes.  Perhaps the decision makers are adept at passing accountability to others and resist getting involved in any way where it might come back their way.  Perhaps they are masking fears that they thought they had already put behind them – unmanaged emotional risks.

Mike’s comment led me back to the project management philosophy I am developing – “The Other Side of Risk.”  The other side of risk involves finding what can go right on a project by balancing the drive to optimize scope, schedule, and budget with the needs for growth of the people, teams, and organizations involved.  This starts with imagining both a perfect journey and an ideal outcome; and then finding what is needed to get there – what can go right.  The project’s approach, scope, and attitude adjust to bring what can go right into the project just like they adjust to mitigate risks – what can go wrong.  Thus, you have the other side of risk.

My thought for Mike was that maybe if we pursue understanding the other side of risk first, the emotional risks and resistance to good quantitative business risk management could be reduced.  If you are set on making something succeed, it might be important to first describe what that will take.   It seems like a less risky way to start applying project management processes.  After all, many of our project management processes deal with constraints, controls, risks, and other things that seem to paint the world in terms of what can’t be done or what can go wrong.

As project managers, we don’t see it that way.  We are getting organized and specific and are thinking ahead so that things go well.  But, our jargon, to those uninitiated in project management, might seem negative and depressing.   We aren’t building up strengths; we are calling out the weaknesses.  These may have been at the root of our decision makers’ fears before deciding to move ahead on the project.  So, the emotional risks that the decision makers may have worked so hard to overcome may be clashing with the identification of the business risks.  Maybe that’s what happens.

This is a tough one to think about, but it seems to be at the core of my evolving project management philosophy.  How can we get people to engage in a project while we are asking them to do things that they may fear or resist?  If our project is significantly comprised of people doing additional duty or stretching into new skills and levels of effort, how to we help them see what’s in it for them as we pursue what we need as project managers?

I think that once our teams and management experience good project management processes they appreciate the value added.  But, it often takes some work to get there.  It can be frustrating.  Stephen Covey’s advice: “Seek first to understand, then be understood” may provide guidance and inspiration to us as we work with our teams and organizations.

Your comments test my unfinished thoughts and help me lean into my own risks.  Thanks for reading.

Dedicated to Stephen Covey and the influence his works have had on me and my successes.

Copyright Glenn Briskin and “The Other Side of Risk” 2012

2 thoughts on “Managing Risk Can Be Risky

  1. I like your developing philosophy about project risk management, Glenn; it has provided me with new insight.

    The project management knowledge area of particular interest to me is human relations. I’ve approached my goal of improving the lives of people on the team as twofold: reducing stress and ensuring success by running the project well and by special attention to the HR components of team building and recognition.

    Until now, I’ve considered risk management in the first category of running the project well, but now I’m thinking about the emotional side of risk and see that risk management also falls in the team building and recognition category.

    Applying the identification of positive risk (opportunity) not only to the project outcome but to the individuals is a brilliant idea. Instead of focusing the weekly team discussions solely on project risk updates, adding personal risk updates and addressing problems and new opportunities would build team trust and engagement. Follow-through on developing the personal opportunities and mitigating the personal risks identified in the beginning and throughout the project will further enhance the HR dimension.

    I mention team meetings but some discussions would need to be done one-on-one.

    Thanks for sharing your developing philosophy. It’s human-relations oriented and very useful.

    Nia Fishler

    • Thanks, Nia. I think that you understand what I’m trying to say better than I do. The other side of risk is about seeing opportunities for people and organizations to grow as a result of the project’s journey; so that definitely links to the HR knowledge area of project management. And, if you consider the organizational and personal growth to be part of the scope of the project, then it affects all the knowledge areas. So, running the project well includes defining and tracking the organizational and personal growth outcomes. A good risk assessment adds mitigating efforts to the project’s scope and schedule. This applies to risks and opportunities.
      Thanks for making me think. Having appreciative readers is very satisfying. Now, if I can just finish this week’s post.

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