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Risk management should make you comfortable with a project's chances for success

The purpose of risk management is to identify roadblocks that can be mitigated successfully. If you're still nervous about your risk plan, you may need to step back and reevaluate the project.

Each week, project management veteran Tom Mochal provides valuable advice about how to plan and manage projects. Tom first describes a common problem scenario, based on a real-life situation. He then offers a solution, using practical project management practices and techniques.

The dilemma
I had a great meeting with Reyna two days ago. Reyna is just about to start a new advertising tracking system project for the marketing department. We covered a lot of subjects, including some definite project risks.

“There didn’t appear to be many obvious risks on most of the projects I have managed at Blue Sky manufacturing,” Reyna observed. “However, this one definitely has a few. It’s funny, the project is not huge, but there are still some concerns to address.”

“Can you give me an example or two?” I asked.

“One is that we are supposed to be implementing a worldwide solution,” Reyna replied. “The various marketing divisions report into our worldwide regions. I’m not sure we’re going to be able to get them all on board.”

“A second risk is that we will not be able to keep the client engaged in this project the whole way,” she continued. “They’re going to be revamping their national ad campaign in the coming months, and I think that’s going to take up much of their focus.”

“Those are a couple of solid risks all right,” I agreed. “But I know you held a risk management session. What was the outcome of that meeting?”

“We put a number of ideas on the table for dealing with these risks and a couple others,” Reyna said. “But I’m still uncomfortable with our chances of being totally successful.”

I thought for a second and then summed up my feelings. “It sounds like you’re not convinced that you have a decent chance to mitigate the project risks,” I said. “I think you still have some work to do on the risk management plan.”

My advice
All of us know that we should perform risk assessments both before a project starts and at periodic intervals throughout the project's life cycle. It looks like Reyna and her team have successfully kicked off this process and created risk plans to prevent the risks from coming to fruition. However, even after doing this work, Reyna is not comfortable that the project will be successful.

We can talk about processes and procedures all day. But these are all just tools to help a project manager successfully manage a project. Take risk management. From a personal perspective, the purpose of risk management is to allow the project manager and other major stakeholders to feel comfortable that the project risks are identified and resolved. That is a key point. Risks are scary. Risk management allows the project manager some degree of comfort that the risks can be tamed.

Let’s look at Reyna’s project again. She has identified known risks and put together a plan to mitigate the risks. However, she still does not feel comfortable. Even though she followed the process correctly on paper, it did not result in the emotional comfort it should have. This tells me that the risk plan needs to be worked on some more.

There are many strategies for dealing with risk. For instance, the risk of not being able to implement in every location is one that her group may not be able to overcome in the short term. She may need to change the project objectives to call for implementation in every location possible, with a possible follow-up project to complete global implementation. She may also need to stretch the project’s timeline a bit.

The risk of client distraction may also be too large to easily mitigate. One option would be to structure the project to need as few client resources as possible until the ad campaign is complete, or perhaps to postpone the project altogether until the ad campaign is in place.

As you can see, you’ll always want to follow good project management processes, but in the end, you also have to feel good about what you’re doing. If you do not feel comfortable about your project’s prospects, take a step back and ask yourself why. You might find that you have not actually executed a process successfully and completely, or you may find that the project’s timeline and scope need to be changed.
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