Risk Management and the Best Laid Plans…
Contingency and prevention plans will help your projects succeed where others fail.
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The Scottish poet Robert Burns observed, "The best-laid plans of mice and men / Often go awry." He observed this in 1785. And, he observed it in Scottish (or is it Scots?). But I don't speak either. The rock band Talking Heads put it even better: "Things fall apart; it's scientific."
We try to do stuff and a lot of the time, it doesn't work. Surveys have shown that most projects fail for reasons that were known or could have been predicted at the very start. That's called "the universe's sense of humor." We evolved big brains to deal with social interactions. We spend hours each day predicting what other people are thinking, and if we ever bother to ask them—which is almost never—we're almost always wrong. And yet we spend almost no time predicting how our most important efforts might fail, even though we'd usually be right.
I combined these two trends in a masterpiece of prediction with my final Power and Influence paper in Harvard Business School. I successfully analyzed the interpersonal dynamics between me and my proposed business partner, and identified all the ways the relationship could end in disaster… and then it did, exactly as I'd predicted.
Don't make my mistakes! Do some simple risk management and boost your success rate a lot.
Tip #1: Embrace What Might Go Wrong
When you start a new project, you're probably full of excitement about how wonderfully it will all turn out. Otherwise, you wouldn't be starting it. As we all know, good feelings are not considered appropriate for the work environment, so spend some time thinking about the scenarios where things fail.
Make a list of all the ways you can imagine the project going wrong. This is a brainstorming list, so include everything that comes to mind: Your zombie reanimation powder vendor might ship the reanimation powder late. The powder may not meet our demanding specifications (what if the zombies only partially reanimate? A-W-K-W-A-R-D!) A rival voodoo priestess might put a curse on our lead reanimation engineer and teleport him to a remote dimension from which there's no escape. Your goal here is to anticipate everything you possibly can, while at the same time killing your mood and returning you to the appropriate level of professional business behavior.
Tip #2: Only Address Serious Risks
You really only care about risks that have a reasonable chance of happening, and that will cause a big problem if they do. Review your list and pull out the risks you think fit that bill. You may include ones that may be unlikely, but if they happen, they spell disaster for the whole project. Will your vendor ship the reanimation powder late? Probably yes, at least once. Will an asteroid wipe out this year's harvest, causing your zombie army dispatch call center to starve to death? Not very likely, and not catastrophic, since with the current job market, you can fill a new call center with qualified candidates overnight.
Tip #3: Create Prevention Plans for the Big Risks
Prevention is something you do now that prevents the risk from happening. For instance, if you pre-bought all the zombie reanimation powder you think you would ever use and stored it in empty grain silos you had purchased throughout the Midwest through a network of shell companies, that would completely prevent the possibility of problems due to late shipments. (Of course, this preventative plan introduces a new risk. The reanimation powder can leach into the surrounding soil. This can cause complications, as I can attest from personal experience. Prevent that risk by making sure the silos you bought are water-tight.)
You could pre-sample each vendor's powder and test it for quality before committing to a vendor. While that won't prevent the possibility of one or another batch being bad, it will prevent the possibility of being locked into a contract with a vendor who simply can't deliver.
Tip #4: Know What Triggers Your Risks
For each risk, identify how you'll know the risk has taken place. Do this even for risks you think you've prevented, because you never know. The last thing the Midwest needs is an army of zombie worms pouring from a broken grain silo. You want to detect the risk quickly, on the off chance it does happen despite your best laid plans for prevention (because we know how "best laid plans" work out).
Decide how you'll know the risk has happened, and assign someone responsibility for monitoring it. Tell your trusted assistant Zachary to monitor each silo on closed-circuit TV. If he sees zombie worms rise up and cry for brains, he'll know the risk has happened. By the way, don't use broadcast TV to monitor your zombies. Again, I speak from personal experience.
Tip #5: Design Contingency Plans for Each Risk
Contingency plans are what you'll do if a risk happens. At least think through contingency plans for all your risks, so if worst comes to worst (and we all know it will), you have a plan and can jump straight into action. You open the cages and let your genetically-engineered worm-eating bunny rabbits loose near the silo. A few minutes later, you have lots of well-fed bunnies, and no more zombified worms.
A few more examples: exercising and eating well are good prevention for many chronic diseases. Having a yearly check-up is an early detection system for many of those diseases. (Some people think check-ups are prevention. They aren't. They're early detection in case prevention failed.) If you do get the diseases, medicine and treatment is your contingency plan.
If you can't come up with a good contingency plan, consider buying insurance. It's the ultimate contingency plan. If disaster strikes and you own insurance, at least you get cash to make everything right. The Producers is a film and Broadway musical based on this very notion…
Plans don't always work out, but a little up-front thinking can save the day. Be willing to confront your risks and put in place prevention plans for the big ones, and think through contingency plans for all of them. That way, when the universe throws you a curve-ball, you'll still be able to catch it, while your competitors crash and burn like the mixed metaphors they are.
Work Less, Do More, and have a Great Life!