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Risk Management and the Best Laid Plans…

Contingency and prevention plans will help your projects succeed where others fail.

By
Stever Robbins,
November 21, 2011
Episode #199

Page 1 of 2

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."

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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.

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